It’s a good bet that by now the entire foreign policy cosmos — from “the Blob” to the 27-year-old reporters — has read the New York Times Magazine profile of Deputy National Security Advisor Benjamin Rhodes, “The Aspiring Novelist Who Became Obama’s Foreign-Policy Guru.” The reporter, David Samuels, had extraordinary access to the White House, multiple well-placed sources and in his 9,500 word piece he provides plenty of attribution, including quotes from Rhodes himself. We get a detailed look, behind the White House facade, at Rhodes, “master shaper and retailer of Obama’s foreign policy narratives,” complete with his contempt for Congress, the press and the public; his manipulation of the media; and a case study of his “narrative” of lies concocted to grease a path for Obama’s signature foreign policy achievement — the unpopular, murky, amorphous and deeply dangerous Iran nuclear deal.
Freighted with the far-reaching effects of a major treaty, the Iran deal was never submitted by Obama to the Senate for ratification as a treaty. Framed as an agreement with Iran, it was never signed by Iran. Sold by the administration as a transparent deal, it is turning out to be a slush heap of secrets. The real blob in this drama is the rolling sludge of presidential over-reach, White House fictions and raw abuse of public trust that has brought us everything from the indigestible “Affordable Care Act” to the Benghazi “video” narrative, to the Iran deal.
As the Washington Free Beacon’s Adam Kredo reports, leading members of Congress are calling on President Obama to fire Rhodes “over accusations the White House intentionally misled lawmakers and the American public about the contents of last summer’s comprehensive nuclear agreement with Iran.”
In a letter to Obama, Senators Mark Kirk, John Cornyn and John Barrasso cite Rhodes’s statement to the New York Times that the White House peddled a phony narrative to sell the Iran deal because he considered it “impossible” for elected lawmakers to have “a sober, reasoned public debate, after which the members of Congress reflect and take a vote.” They note, if Rhodes “had conducted himself this way in a typical place of business outside Washington, where American taxpayers work, he surely would have been already fired or asked to resign.”
So, why does Ben Rhodes still have his job?
The broad answer involves the moral vertigo of modern Washington, the Instagram attention span of too many members of a Twitter-driven press corps, and the self-abasements of a culture in which the old American spirit of individual responsibility and free enterprise has been devolving — with many a prompt from President You-Didn’t-Build-That — into a selfie-snapping contest for “safe spaces” and “free stuff.”
In that context, dude, what difference does it make if Boy Wonder Ben Rhodes, speechwriter and “strategic communicator,” mind-melded with the president, carries on manufacturing and marketing the “narrative” that passes these days for foreign policy? Once you dispense with the baggage of reality, and its knock-on effects for those multitudes of lesser mortals who have never flown on Air Force One, what’s left is former White House staffer Tommy Vietor (“Dude, this was like two years ago“), buddy of Ben Rhodes, techno-chatting to one of Washington’s best reporters, Eli Lake (who knows plenty), that he’s sure most folks outside of Washington think the Rhodes profile was just a “fascinating profile of a brilliant guy with a really cool job.”
All these things matter. But there’s a far more direct answer to the question of why Rhodes still has his job.
Quite simply, Rhodes still has his job because President Obama likes it that way. In the caudillo calculus of Obama’s White House that’s about all that really matters. It’s part of the fundamental transformation of America.
Under the old rules of American politics, a top White House staffer getting caught betraying the public trust (and then gloating over it) would have been a firing offense. Not anymore. For this president, with his pen, phone and proclivity for executive diktat, the priority is not the rights of the American people, or their elected lawmakers in Congress, or fidelity to the truth. What matters is loyalty to Obama and his agenda — however radical that becomes, and whatever it might require in terms of lies, manipulation and disregard for democratic process.
The real story here is not Rhodes. It’s his boss. Rhodes is no rogue element on Obama’s staff. We’ve heard no protest from the White House over Rhodes’s statement in the Samuels profile that “I don’t know anymore where I begin and Obama ends.”
What’s come out of the White House instead is an article by Rhodes on “How We Advocated for the Iran Deal“; now coupled with a rejection by the White House of an invitation from Congress for Rhodes to come testify on that very topic, at a hearing held earlier today. A prime distinction between these two poles is that Rhodes, when writing an article, controls the narrative from his keyboard (dispensing with assorted inconvenient truths on grounds that “I’m sure I’ll have plenty of opportunities to respond to those topics in the weeks and months to come”). In front of the likes of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, there’s the awkward chance that Rhodes might lose control of his narrative.
The White House argued that the invitation for Rhodes to testify “raises significant constitutional concerns rooted in the separation of powers.” That would be more persuasive had the president shown any such concern for the Constitution while ramming through the Iran deal. That was not solely a matter of peddling the Rhodes-Obama narrative. Obama also raced to get United Nations Security Council approval for the deal before Congress had a chance to delve into it. Recall Obama’s lead negotiator, Wendy Sherman, ridiculing the idea that the administration should take the position “Well, excuse me, the world, you should wait for the United States Congress.” (Yes, Wendy, this being America, that is exactly how it should have worked).
The White House further argues that “the appearance of a senior presidential adviser before Congress threatens the independence and autonomy of the President, as well as his ability to receive candid advice and counsel in the discharge of his constitutional duties.” Fine, if the White House is dealing with Congress and the public in good faith. But when the candid advice and counsel consists of concocting and packagaing lies — excuse me, “narratives” — designed to neuter Congress and mislead the public, where does that take us?
Yes, America’s system comes with checks and balances. But these depend on more than the written codes. They also depend on a basic measure of good faith from the chief executive, the figure in the bully pulpit. As my old boss, the late Robert L. Bartley, former head of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, liked to say: character matters. When an administration is caught deliberately spinning lies, when a White House official paid to uphold the public trust is exposed as deriding and manipulating that same public, the response needed for the healthy working of democracy is apology, contrition and a real remedy. If the official does not have conscience enough to resign, the president should do the honors, by firing him. Or her.
Under Obama, it has become standard procedure that such firings do not take place. Obama shrugs off the news, doubles down on the narrative and bulldozes ahead. Once the scandal is consigned to last week’s news cycle, for purposes of this administration it is down the Memory Hole. Obamacare, with its partisan vote, indecipherable text, soaring costs and disastrous web site rollout; an American economy choking under regulations; the disintegration of Libya, the vanishing red line in Syria, the terrorist attacks in Benghazi, the rise of ISIS, North Korea’s nuclear tests, Iran’s ballistic missile tests, China’s military buildup, Russia’s turf grabs — the Obama narrative says it is all under control. Nothing much to see here, move along. Or, to quote Obama’s first secretary of State, “What difference, at this point, does it make?”
In the resulting vacuum, absent ethical or responsible leadership at the very top, we’re left to amuse ourselves with the chatter of the echo chamber — home to the infinitely malleable narratives of Rhodes and his boss. Last Wednesday, seeking to mollify the reporters so roundly insulted by Rhodes, White House spokesman Josh Earnest and Chief of Staff Denis McDonough brought a box of donuts to the White House press corps, calling their visit “press appreciation day.” Earnest assured reporters that Rhodes would revise the contemptuous statements about the press, “given a chance.” Does that mean Rhodes will now disavow, in the White House inner chambers, that “candid advice and counsel” so prized by the president?
Samuels, for his part, has followed up his Rhodes profile with another New York Times piece, “Through the Looking Glass With Ben Rhodes.” In this article, Samuels says he stands by everything in his original article, but now he wants us to know that “Ben Rhodes is the bravest person I’ve ever met in Washington.” Samuels now tells us that his story was simply “a portrait of an honest, dedicated person with a great deal of power in Washington who happens to be deeply critical of the press — not out of cynicism or anger, but out of regret over the seemingly vanishing possibilities of free and open discourse.”
This is Through the Looking Glass indeed. Rhodes by this latest account sounds much of a piece with the Walrus, who in tandem with the Carpenter, in Lewis Carroll’s classic, lured along those luscious little oysters to their doom:
“I weep for you,” the Walrus said:
“I deeply sympathize”
With sobs and tears he sorted out
Those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket-handkerchief
Before his streaming eyes.
Why would Obama fire Rhodes? If nothing else comes clear from this saga, it is that Rhodes has served for years as one of the chief ideological bag men of Obama’s presidency. If, under their ministrations the possibilities of free and open discourse are vanishing in Washington, replaced by bully pulpit narratives bouncing around the echo chamber, wasn’t that the reason Obama gave Rhodes all that power in the first place?