The World as It Is: Inside the Obama White House
This beautifully composed memoir, written by someone who was arguably closer to Barack Obama than any member of the former president’s official family, contains much to admire. Ben Rhodes’ reflections on his eight-year tenure as Obama’s deputy national security advisor – the job title coming nowhere close to conveying the importance of his role – are frequently insightful, occasionally funny and sometimes quite moving. They are also carefully curated. The World as It Is both reveals and conceals.
Rhodes reminds us why – perhaps now more than ever – so many people hold his former boss in such high regard. As president, Obama brought to the Oval Office an abundance of estimable qualities: intelligence and decency, self-discipline and self-awareness, a respect for history tempered by a determination to nudge “the world as it is” towards “the world that ought to be”. That the current US president possesses none of these traits invests Rhodes’ retrospective appraisal with a palpable poignancy.
Rhodes stands in relation to Obama as Ted Sorensen did to John F. Kennedy – someone who intuitively grasped the president’s worldview and intentions. As the chief foreign policy speechwriter, Rhodes displayed an uncanny knack for translating Obama’s ideas into graceful prose. He also had a capacity to anticipate Obama’s perspective even on the most abstruse issue.
Yet the two men differed in temperament. The politically savvy Obama was quicker to acknowledge the limits of what might be possible. The much younger Rhodes – he was still in his twenties when he joined Team Obama – wanted the United States to “go big”, regardless of risks, to make the world a better place. In that regard, a more apt title for this book might have been “The Education of a Speechwriter”. Time and again, Rhodes records his dissatisfaction with the gap between Obama’s words (which, often as not, were Rhodes’ own) and the president’s actions, which tended to shy away from “big”.
With the eruption of the Arab Spring in 2011, for example, Rhodes saw “clear-cut choices – between right and wrong, boldness and caution, the past and the future”. He bridled against those who counselled Obama to take a wait-and-see approach, complaining that the administration was lagging “a step and a half behind the people in the streets”. Rhodes saw not danger but opportunity, and argued for getting in step with the people: “I wanted us to do something, to shape events instead of observing them.” As the situation in Egypt and elsewhere spun out of control, he worried that the administration wasn’t “doing anything other than averting even worse outcomes”. Even before Obama’s first term had ended, Rhodes was grumbling that the administration had lowered its sights. Yet in statecraft, averting even worse outcomes is not a result to be sniffed at, and lowering sights may make it possible to hit at least a couple of targets.
To read this book is to recognise once again how the events of 9/11 hijacked US policy. By invading Iraq in 2003, the United States embedded itself in a morass from which it has yet to escape. This defined George W. Bush’s strychnine-laced gift to his successor. Although Obama presided over a slow recovery from the Great Recession, he proved unable to find an exit from what Rhodes refers to as “permanent war”.
Rhodes makes it clear that Obama began his presidency intent on revising US strategic priorities. Climate change, relations with Russia and Cuba, and perhaps above all the changing balance of power in Asia: these were the issues where he hoped to make a difference. Yet crises in Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen and Syria repeatedly diverted his attention from matters of far greater long-term importance to the United States and to the planet as a whole.
The “Pivot to Asia” offers a case in point. “Asia seemed to represent the future,” Rhodes writes. Yet apart from resulting in the stationing of a US Marine contingent in Australia, the much-ballyhooed Pivot has produced little of substance. Obama made next to no progress in answering the central geopolitical question of the twenty-first century: how will the United States and its partners in East Asia come to terms with the rise of China? Meanwhile, the government in Beijing moves briskly forward with a seemingly clear understanding of its purposes.
Rhodes rightly credits the Obama administration with several worthy foreign policy successes: the Trans-Pacific Partnership on trade, the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris climate accord and the opening of relations with Cuba (which Rhodes himself negotiated). Yet he makes the scorecard look better than it deserves by ignoring matters where historians may well find Obama’s actions at odds with his reputation for prudence. The trillion-dollar makeover of the US nuclear arsenal, initiated by Obama and since endorsed by Donald Trump, offers one example. Obama’s uninhibited employment of missile-firing drones as instruments of de facto assassination offers a second. The unleashing of the Stuxnet computer virus to destroy Iranian centrifuges, thereby flinging open the Pandora’s box of offensive cyber warfare, offers a third. That Rhodes has little if anything to say about these undermines his credibility.
Trump is now engaged in wilfully sabotaging the positive aspects of Obama’s foreign policy record; that is regrettable, to put it mildly. Yet readers of The World as It Is are not likely to find it surprising. The introduction to the ugly underside of American politics that Rhodes received while working in the White House makes the dismantling of Obama’s legacy appear close to inevitable.
In volunteering to serve as a member of Obama’s staff, Rhodes was confident he was doing the best by his country and the world. He was equally certain that the president’s motives aligned with his own. Therefore, the realisation that others in Washington might have a different view – with Republicans solely interested in partisan advantage, the media consumed with playing gotcha and the permanent government, the so-called “Deep State”, preoccupied with protecting its prerogatives – came as a shock to Rhodes. We may chalk up his surprise to innocence or naivety or to an expectation that the election of the first black president signalled a new beginning to American politics. If anything, the reverse was true: with Obama in the White House, Washington’s worst tendencies only became more exaggerated.
Even so, Rhodes’s dismay at the cynicism, hypocrisy and obstructionism that Obama confronted is illuminating, especially presently, with Russian interference in the 2016 national elections a topic of broad interest. Rhodes makes it clear that Putin’s Russia is not alone in meddling in American politics. Others do so routinely, the government of Israel and lobbying groups acting on Israel’s behalf not least among them.
On this point, Rhodes, who grew up in a strongly pro-Israel family, is scathing. By 2015, he writes, with many supporters of Israel deeming Obama insufficiently supportive of the Jewish state, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “had become almost a de facto member of the Republican caucus”. Republican leaders in Congress “had abandoned any norms about working with a foreign government to undermine the policies of a sitting president”.
If colluding with a foreign government is a crime, Trump is by no means the only offender.
Andrew J. Bacevich