Meet the Flimflam Man Behind Obama's Foreign Policy 'Narrative'
When it comes to foreign policy, President Obama has spent more than seven years now living the dream. And I mean dream, as in fantasy -- a trip to an alternate universe. Never mind the dangerous and in some cases deadly realities that increasingly beset the rest of the planet. For the White House, it's been one glorious fiction after another. Russia was a "reset." Libya was a success. So was the pivot to Asia. The tide of war is receding. There was a red line in Syria (until there wasn't). The Iran nuclear program is now "exclusively peaceful." America's standing in the world is now -- according to a White House tally of nameless surveys -- higher than when Obama took office.
Remarkable. But don't credit Obama alone for the creative talent behind these fictions. In a story just posted by The New York Times Magazine, veteran reporter David Samuels brings us a long, appalling and masterfully reported look behind the scenes at influential White House senior staffer Ben Rhodes, "The Aspiring Novelist Who Became Obama's Foreign Policy Guru." Rhodes, 38, serves as assistant to the president, deputy national security advisor for strategic communications and speechwriting, and oversees, as the White House web site tells us, "President Obama's national security communications, speechwriting and global engagement."
How did Ben Rhodes get there? From New York prep-school, Rhodes went on to study creative writing at New York University. He published one short story, before enlisting his mother's connections to enter the world of foreign policy. He then rose to become, as Samuels describes it, "the master shaper and retailer of Obama's foreign-policy narratives, at a time when the killer wave of social media has washed away the sand castles of the traditional press." Samuels notes, "His lack of conventional real-world experience of the kind that normally precedes responsibility for the fate of nations -- like military or diplomatic service, or even a master's degree in international relations, rather than creative writing -- is still startling."
In an era when the-most-transparent-administration-ever is prone to such locutions as "Off the record, we have no comment," Samuels has done a superb job of pulling back the curtain on Rhodes, "Boy Wonder of the Obama White House." Samuels describes Rhodes as relatively low profile (he tends to turn up in big stories as "an unnamed senior official in paragraph 9"), "But once you are attuned to the distinctive qualities of Rhodes's voice -- which is often laced with aggressive contempt for anyone or anything that stands in the president's way -- you can hear him everywhere."
Writes Samuels, "Part of what accounts for Rhodes's influence is his 'mind meld' with the president. Nearly everyone I spoke to about Rhodes used the phrase 'mind meld' verbatim, some with casual assurance and others in the hushed tones that are usually reserved for special insights." Samuels quotes Rhodes himself saying, "I don't know anymore where I begin and Obama ends."
There are various examples in this article of how Rhodes and his White House shop contrive to shape and spin policy and news, availing themselves of "the soft Orwellian vibe" of today's highly malleable social media. Samuels describes this process as different from the days when "experienced reporters competed for scoops and where carrying water for the White House was a cause for shame, no matter which party was in power." These days, he writes, "the most effectively weaponized 140-character idea or quote will almost always carry the day, and it is very difficult for even good reporters to necessarily know where the spin is coming from or why."