America’s Foreign Policy Amateurs

What was the most shocking thing about the Iraq War? One of the most shocking (and least discussed) things was surely this: the very fact that such a naive and poorly informed crowd like the neo-cons had been able to come so close to the center of US policy making. Neo-conservatives never did represent anything more than a sliver of academics and experts in either IR or Middle East Studies; this was no cabal of PhDs in Arabic or Islam. Yet nonetheless, it was the neo-cons who ended up in positions to shape America’s response to 9/11.

In this light, Daniel McAdams has been asking an excellent question, this time about the Obama administration: Who is Ben Rhodes (pictured above)?. [An earlier version of the same question asked here].

Actually, it’s not a good question. We know who Ben Rhodes is: he’s a thirty-something year-old with a B.A. from Rice, and a Master of Fictional Arts (sic) from NYU. Oh, that and: at 24 Rhodes got to co-write the 9/11 commission report; later co-wrote the Iraq Study report; then came to serve as Obama’s core foreign policy speech writer; wrote Obama’s all-important addresses in Cairo and Jerusalem; was a larger player in leading Obama to use force in Libya; and is now apparently important in convincing Obama to take a more active stance in Syria.

So the question is not: ‘Who is Ben Rhodes’? The question is: How on earth is Ben Rhodes one of the most decisive voices in determining American foreign policy?

Just two small passages from the NYT “profile of power” on Rhodes, the writing process of which it is hard to imagine not being constantly interrupted by irrepressible bursts of laughter:

“Two years ago, when protesters thronged Tahrir Square in Cairo, Mr. Rhodes urged Mr. Obama to withdraw three decades of American support for President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. A few months later, Mr. Rhodes was among those agitating for the president to back a NATO military intervention in Libya.
[…]
In many ways, Mr. Rhodes is an improbable choice for a job at the heart of the national security apparatus. An aspiring writer from Manhattan, he has an unfinished novel in a drawer, “Oasis of Love,” about a woman who joins a megachurch in Houston, breaking her boyfriend’s heart.”

What is going on here? America is the land of the best academies in the world. There are thousands upon thousands of Arabic-speaking Middle East experts, men and women who have studied both American foreign policy and the Middle East, and who can move seamlessly between detailing the Battle of Karbala and providing impromptu translations of rebel videos on youtube, all the while stirring the most authentic-tasting tabouleh you’ll ever find outside the Levant. So why is it a 30-something-year-old MFA from Houston who Obama turns to when wondering how to shape the US-Arab rapprochement, whether to drop a three-decade standing alliance with a dictator, or whether to intervene in the most messy Middle Eastern civil war since Lebanon?

More illuminating (and astonishing) insight into the functioning of Obama’s strategic team can be gathered from Rhodes’ own mouth, in two passages from a 2011 address to his alma mater Rice:

“I think the most interesting moment was on February 1st when President Mubarak made kind of his first speech that clearly wasn’t meeting the demands of the protesters. We were actually meeting in the situation room at the time with the president and the national security team, stopped the meeting, turned on the TV set, and sat there like everybody else watching the speech. And then turned it off and decided how to respond to it.

[…]

One of the principles I’ll say in conclusion is that […] the President was very adamant from the beginning of these protests is that we see them as opportunities, not as crises. That, for all the challenges to stability in the region, and there are many, and all the important relationships to the US, that when people are standing up for their universal rights […] the currents of history are very much moving into the right direction in that part of the world.”

Of course Ben Rhodes is a speech writer for Obama. He will presumably not divulge all the details of actual policy making. But a passage like the above has the apparent character of an unguarded description, at least the first portion of it. As such, what Rhodes’s speech shows is that Obama actually cut the cord to one of America’s most important regional allies by first watching a speech on TV like all the rest of us, and then deciding with his team (including the Ben Rhodes’s of this world) that it ‘didn’t meet the demands of the protestors’, and figuring they’d better be ‘on the right side of history’.

Of course the reply to all the above is obvious: why are you picking on Ben Rhodes? Surely Obama is surrounded by many other, more senior and more knowledgeable people who provide American Foreign Policy with a steady, clear-eyed direction.

But actually Mr. Rhodes represents a much broader phenomenon. There is the fact that many of Obama’s key team-members are twenty-something-year-olds (including the famed Jon Favreau, who since working for Obama has gone on to write Hollywood scripts— because, you know, what’s the diffference?). But Obama also appears to take seriously plenty other people of unclear expertise in the media and blogosphere. There’s Jeffrey Goldberg, who mixes equal parts of nuanced neutrality with unoriginality and cliche. Also, Obama just appointed Samantha Power as his UN ambassador; Power, who is the very paradigm of modern culture’s saturating preoccupation with ‘saving lives and preventing massacres!’. For heaven’s sake, Obama supposedly has regular meetings with Tom “It’s a Flat World” Friedman!

My point is this. There appears to be a general phenomenon where American foreign policy is no longer merely the subject of writing and thinking by young, intrepid, oft-tweeting policy-enthusiasts: it is now also run by these same sort of characters. Government itself has been absorbed into the blogosphere. Indeed, Obama himself sometimes seems to display all the levels of appropriate moral nuance and aspiration to sophisticated rationality of an up-and-coming Yale graduate student.

In contrast, the parties and regimes that contend with America in its strategic conflicts around the world (Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Hezbollah, etc.) typically have the very opposite policy culture of what is described above. These regimes typically make no claims of operating according to meritocratic rationales, incessantly promoting ‘brilliant young thinkers’. Instead these parties center influence in small groups of privileged individuals with a hardened view of their interests. And the shocking point is: so far such small cabals have seemed no less effective at furthering their interests than the great intellectual US superpower. Iran, for example, has a small group of very experienced and very clever policy advisers, who have so far done an expert job at furthering the Iranian good. Bashar Assad, too, has done a surprisingly good job of navigating his quandary, and knowing what parties on which to rely.

And I did not even mention the Putin/Lavrov tandem. With America now apparently escalating its support for Syria’s rebels (only the good ones of course!), the ball is now returning to the Russians’ court. I would not be surprised if, once again, they manage to do something good and unexpected with it.

For now though, we can of course rest assured: everything is ‘very much moving into the right direction in that part of the world’.

[Note: In explaining the meteoric rise of Ben Rhodes, McAdams also points to his brother David Rhodes, who seems to have enjoyed a comparably impressive career. Also taking a BA from Rice, D. Rhodes joined Fox News as a mere intern, but has since climbed up to the position President of CBS. Not a bad run, by any standard. So perhaps there is a common cause between the two Rhodes’ brothers’ particular successes in the career field. But of course I’m not interested in Mr Rhodes in particular, but in the more general dynamic I pointed to.]

[Note 2: After Sulla, the Romans used to have something called ‘the cursus honorum’: a carefully stratified career path any young ambitious man must have completed before being considered for a consulship. Though in Rome, too, it was not always kept to (the emperors often being particularly striking examples), it would not be bad for the US to reflect on the rationale of such a phenomenon.]

[Note 3: I know what you’re thinking. What about you? Aren’t you just a know-nothing amateur speculating about foreign policy? Exactly. But I’m a nobody. I can’t help that you’re reading this.]

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