Deputy National Security Adviser Benjamin Rhodes, 35, is again in the spotlight as new information about the Benghazi talking points comes to light. He and State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland were part of the 12-round effort to scrub the CIA’s original talking points of detailed references to the terrorist group Ansar al-Sharia and its role in the Benghazi attack.
Rhodes’ experience prior to becoming one of President Barack Obama’s senior national security advisers is…unusual. The New York Times profiled Rhodes in a hagiography on March 15, 2013.
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 to head off a slaughter by Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.
“He became, first in the speechwriting process, and later, in the heat of the Arab Spring, a central figure,” said Michael A. McFaul, who worked with Mr. Rhodes in the National Security Council and is now the American ambassador to Russia.
We see how that’s working out. Egypt is in the hands of Islamists. Libya was the scene of the Benghazi Islamist attack. Rhodes now wants the US to take a more active role in Syria, which like Egypt and Libya, pits a far from perfect secular despot against a rebellion whose organizational spine is Islamist.
But Obama officials around him see him as “wise.”
Samantha Power, another former National Security Council colleague who joined him in advocating intervention in Libya, said: “He has a very high batting average in terms of prognostication. I don’t understand where Ben gets his ‘old man’ wisdom.”
It takes wisdom to separate real wisdom from foolishness that sounds good.
Surely, though, Rhodes at least brings real foreign policy chops to the table? Um, no, he doesn’t. He worked briefly for Rudy Giuliani in 1997. Other than that–
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.
Mr. Rhodes went to work for a Democratic foreign-policy elder, former Representative Lee Hamilton, helping draft the 9/11 Commission report as well as the Iraq Study Group report. That report was a template for the anti-Iraq war positions taken by Barack Obama, then a senator, whose campaign Mr. Rhodes joined as a speechwriter in 2008.
He wrote a report that Obama liked.
At the White House, Mr. Rhodes first came to prominence after he wrote Mr. Obama’s landmark address to the Muslim world in Cairo in June 2009. The speech was notable for Mr. Obama’s assertion that governments should “reflect the will of the people,” prefiguring his policy in dealing with Mr. Mubarak and Colonel Qaddafi.
Mr. “Old man wisdom” has been wrong since at least that 2009 speech. Ben Rhodes helped nudge two countries toward Islamist control and it’s reasonable to expect that toppling Assad in Syria would hand Islamists a third. Jordan would then be in greater danger of falling to Islamist revolution.
“Ben always holds on to the pen,” Mr. McFaul said. “Because of his close personal relationship with the president, Ben can always make policy through the speeches and statements made by President Obama.”
Presidents should set policy that their speechwriters then capture in language. Ben Rhodes, if the Times story is accurate, is making policy that President Obama then carries out. I’d bet it’s more the case that Rhodes’ writing reflects what Obama already thinks, as the young and inexperienced fiction writer is naturally in sync with the young and inexperienced president who hired him. So when Rhodes was acting to change the CIA talking points, he was acting on Obama’s behalf.