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."

For all his persuasiveness, incompetence is Satan's principle problem. The devil always sets out to construct heaven and winds up with hell because he uses the wrong principles.  Castro, Kim, Stalin, Chavez, Mao -- who all would have ruled the universe if they could have, yet finished up ruling trash heaps -- probably were surprised at the turn of events. Yet why should it be surprising? Mordor in The Lord of the Rings was the shabbiest place on Middle Earth just as Pandemonium, Milton's capital of hell in Paradise Lost, is the most frightful place in the universe because these turkeys were going about it the wrong way and were too proud to admit error.

Clueless yet self-righteous would describe Ben Rhodes to a T.  Samuels in his article has a moment of clarity when he understands that he isn't anywhere real. "Having recently spent time working in Hollywood, I realize during our conversations that the role Rhodes plays in the White House bears less resemblance to any specific character on Beltway-insider TV shows like 'The West Wing' or 'House of Cards' than it does to the people who create those shows. And like most TV writers, Rhodes clearly prefers to imagine himself in the company of novelists."

President Obama is not like a fictional president, he is a fictional president. When Obama described himself as a blank screen on which anyone was free to project his fantasies, the public should have listened. What makes the present absurd situation possible is that a critical mass of voters have agreed to go along with the make-believe. Bonhoeffer in his prison letters says what he means by "stupid" is the passivity born of a feeling of learned helplessness akin to an audience passively watching a play.

Upon closer observation, it becomes apparent that every strong upsurge of power in the public sphere, be it of a political or a religious nature, infects a large part of humankind with stupidity. … under the overwhelming impact of rising power, humans are deprived of their inner independence and, more or less consciously, give up establishing an autonomous position toward the emerging circumstances.

To him the German people had become an audience watching a madman on stage. Ben Franklin had the idea before Bonhoeffer, when he observed that a functioning republic required thinking voters but tyranny needs only groupies.  Society is stupid in the same way, stuck on celebrity, stuck on being groupies for Hillary, Bernie, Donald, Obama and Kim Kardashian.

The graphic artist Shepard Fairey understood the fundamentally bogus nature of Obama when he crafted his best-selling poster, "Hope."  We are passive.  We sit around and hope.

Fiction Fiction

It's all illusion; the trouble is the public doesn't mind.  True malice, Bonhoeffer argued, requires a kind of sanity; the conscious rejection of an external standard against which they are in rebellion. What is truly frightening about the Obama inner circle is there's not even that.  In a now forgotten interview with Cathleen Falsani on the subject of his religious beliefs, Obama defined sin as the state of being in disagreement with himself:

Falsani: 
Do you believe in sin?

OBAMA: 
Yes.

Falsani: What is sin?

OBAMA:
 Being out of alignment with my values.

That's all there is and it's terrifying. People that came close enough to the Nazis and Communists found that they were worse than evil. They were nothing.  Bonhoeffer anticipated Hannah Arendt's discovery of the banality of evil when he observed that true stupidity -- real emptiness -- is the most destructive condition of all.  You are dealing with people who will pull the wings off a butterfly without even realizing they are hurting something.

In conversation with [the stupid man] one virtually feels that one is not dealing not at all with him as a person, but with slogans, catchwords and the like that have taken possession of him. ... Having thus become a mindless tool, the stupid person will also become capable of any evil and at the same time incapable of seeing that it is evil. This is where the danger of diabolical misuse lurks, for it is this that can once and for all destroy human beings.

One of the most disturbing descriptions in all of fiction is the gradual demonic possession of Professor Edward Rolles Weston in C.S. Lewis' Perelandra.  Lewis describes how the formerly eminent professor, who hopes to be filled with Satanic cleverness, is instead progressively filled with emptiness. Instead of "a suave and subtle Mephistopheles with red cloak and rapier and a feather in his cap," Weston became a kind of whining mediocrity, not so much "a wicked politician ... much more like ... an imbecile or a monkey or a very nasty child."

When the Un-man could not get animals it was content with plants. It was fond of cutting their outer rinds through with its nails, or grubbing up roots, or pulling off leaves, or even tearing up handfuls of turf. With Ransom himself it had innumerable games to play. It had a whole repertory of obscenities to perform with its own--or rather with Weston's--body: and the mere silliness of them was almost worse than the dirtiness. It would sit making grimaces at him for hours together; and then, for hours more, it would go back to its old repetition of "Ransom . . . Ransom." Often its grimaces achieved a horrible resemblance to people whom Ransom had known and loved in our own world. But worst of all were those moments when it allowed Weston to come back into its countenance. Then its voice, which was always Weston's voice, would begin a pitiful, hesitant mumbling, "You be very careful, Ransom. I'm down in the bottom of a big black hole."

Weston was at the bottom of a big hole. Modern Western civilization is inside of a big transgender bathroom. The fundamental mistake of the policy establishment (which Ben Rhodes derisively calls "the blob") was to take the Obama administration seriously, to think that terms like "grand bargain" and regional realignments were serious concepts and to spend hours pondering their meaning. Instead we now know they were just phrases that Obama and his inner circle made up as they went along.  Thus a White House that should have been instantly destroyed by contempt was instead preserved by the wariness of those who thought they were facing a Professor Moriarty rather Bluto from Animal House.

Perhaps the only person who guessed the truth -- besides Clint Eastwood -- was Vladimir Putin.  Some instinct told the Russian that inside the suit there was nothing. He's treated Obama accordingly and that's been the secret to his success ever since.  Malice or incompetence? Moriarty or Bonhoeffer's empty stupid? The reason the Washington policy establishment likes to believe Obama is some cunning schemer is that otherwise they'll never live it down.

Follow Wretchard on Twitter.


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