The Men Who Would Be King

The New York Times has an article describing how Ben Rhodes, President Obama’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, sold fiction as truth in communicating the president's foreign policy. Rhodes regarded the deception as a clever way to success. Like an engineering student who has found a way to cheat on his final exam, or a man astonished to find himself with a medical license by mistake, Rhodes appears to think he's actually accomplished something positive. He has no clue he's set up a disaster that is only waiting to happen. Thomas Ricks, writing in Foreign Policy, calls the article "a stunning profile of Ben Rhodes, the asshole who is the president’s foreign policy guru."

But it is also a profile of the president. As David Samuels wrote in the NYT source article, Rhodes saw himself as a reflection of the president:

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. He doesn't think for the president, but he knows what the president is thinking, which is a source of tremendous power. One day, when Rhodes and I were sitting in his boiler-room office, he confessed, with a touch of bafflement, "I don't know anymore where I begin and Obama ends."

Rhodes is the reflection. Obama is the originating image. Rhodes is just a flunky who transcribes what the president dictates. Still the Samuels article, by printing the administration's admission of its willful deception on Iran policy, provides crucial insight into the fascinating subject of whether Barack Obama -- if you believe he is a failure -- is incompetent or malevolent.

Which is it?

At first glance the admission that the administration lied to the public seems a slam-dunk case for malevolence. But there's more to it than that. There is a perception that political imbecility is a lesser offense than malice. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the anti-Nazi activist, while in prison waiting to be executed, reflected that "stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than malice" because evil left behind in its conscious perpetrators "a sense of unease."

Against true imbecility even reasoning was useless since you couldn't even appeal to your enemy's self interest because they were too dumb to see it. "Against stupidity we are defenseless," he wrote, because imbeciles never feel a qualm. Against the stupid "neither protests nor the use of force accomplish anything ... reasons fall on deaf ears; facts that contradict ... simply do not need to be believed ... and when facts are irrefutable they are just pushed aside as inconsequential, as incidental. In all this, the stupid person, in contrast to the malicious one, is utterly self-satisfied and, being easily irritated, becomes dangerous by going on the attack."