Culture

The Final Year Reveals the Obama Administration’s Naïvety and Arrogance

arack Obama speaks at a conference during his first visit to France since he left the White House (Benoit Tessier/Reuters)
It sought to avoid conflict but left a bloody trail.

In a moment of woeful irony in the Obama-administration documentary The Final Year, U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power travels to Cameroon to offer photo-op comfort to families terrorized by Boko Haram — only to have her motorcade kill a seven-year-old boy. The boy had run out into the road to gape at a helicopter pulling security for Power’s team of VIPs. Greg Barker, the director of this fan film, does not depict the horrifying accident and does his best to downplay it: It is discussed while we watch a clip of Power’s convoy moving at a crawl when in fact it was reportedly traveling at over 60 miles an hour when it struck the boy. Despite Barker’s intentions, the handiwork of the Road to Hell Paving Company is obvious. Team Obama, with its let’s-hug-it-out attitude to world conflict, left a bloody trail.

The Final Year, which is playing on a few screens ahead of its debut on HBO in May, has drawn some notice for a five-minute scene set in Power’s apartment on Election Night 2016. She invited the camera crew to film her party with the world’s 37 female ambassadors to toast the inevitable Hillary Clinton landslide, which she feared would happen so quickly that she wouldn’t have time “to milk the soft power dividend of this moment,” as she later told Politico. Power’s fist-pumping as she watches the election returns turns to blanching, but it’s Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes who has the most amusing reaction to Donald Trump’s victory.

Rhodes twice reassures us that Clinton will win. “I’m sure,” he says with a smirk on a trip to Southeast Asia. Asked later whether a Trump administration might endanger his accomplishments, he says, “I’ve never really considered that he has any opportunity to win the election.” So what does the speechwriter and former aspiring novelist have to say when Trump does in fact win? “I mean, uh, I can’t even [long pause] I can’t, I ca— [long pause] I mean I, I can’t, I can’t, I can’t put it into words. I don’t know what the words are.”

The Final Year, though, is chiefly a study of Obama-administration foreign policy as overseen by Secretary of State John Kerry, Power, and Rhodes, who at the time of filming had become (in)famous for telling The New York Times Magazine that he had set up an “echo chamber” in Washington of Obama sycophants in order to mislead the American people about expert opinion on the Iran deal, and for pouring contempt on D.C. reporters, who he said were typically 27 and “literally know nothing.”

From the doc, it appears that Rhodes, not Kerry, was running U.S. foreign policy in 2016, and perhaps for some time before that. At an event in Vietnam, for instance, Rhodes is seen giving orders to Kerry and telling him how many questions he’s allowed to answer — two. Kerry spends much of the film flitting around trying to look useful. On a visit to Greenland, he says, “This is seeing firsthand things I’ve read about and I think it’ll make me a more urgent advocate.”

The Obama foreign-policy masters see their three accomplishments as the Paris Climate Accord, the opening to Cuba, and the Iran deal. Given that the former wasn’t presented to Congress for approval, was nonbinding, and was later dumped by President Trump, while the other two amounted to making concessions to American foes in exchange for virtually nothing, this is a bit like bragging that you suckered the Franklin Mint into giving up a souvenir Elvis plate for only $34.95. But to understand why Rhodes and Obama are so pleased with their foreign policy, you have to understand the way they think. The documentary is revealing about that.

Rhodes’ rhetorical trick, which he shared with Obama, was to use a favored trope of the center-right in service of knocking down a strawman. “[Obama] has been saying for ten years that American exceptionalism is rooted in what we stand for and how we act and not just in our ability to impose our will on people,” Rhodes says, as if anyone is arguing that American exceptionalism equals steamrolling other countries like Hitler.

Rhodes is an arc man: There’s this Mighty Arc of History (™), see, and everything naturally bends toward it. (In Vietnam, Rhodes coaches Kerry how to talk about the trip: “I think the main thing for them is drawing the arc of progress like how far this place has come and how tied that is with the relationship with us.”) The Arc is indistinguishable from a progressive vision of the future, so if you do nothing, everything just gets more progressive by itself. That’s how it works in theory, anyway.

Naïvety, meet arrogance. These were the two guiding forces behind the Rhodes-Obama foreign policy. The arrogance came in thinking that all previous administrations were too thick to come up with this awesome idea Rhodes had, which in turn was as fuzzy and thin as a starter mustache on a high-school freshman: Military force is bad.

No one else figured this out before Ben Rhodes. “In Washington,” he says, “there is a kind of default that we’ve been trying to break. Which is that the way in which we demonstrate that we’re serious about a problem is by using military force.” This, the film backs with images of the bombing of Laos during the Vietnam War. In a Rhodes-written speech in Hiroshima, Obama is seen saying, “We must change our mindset about war itself. To prevent conflict through diplomacy.” It’s like the old Monty Python lesson about how to play the flute: It’s easy. You just blow in one end, then move your fingers up and down over the holes.

Actual events don’t align with the Rhodes-Obama rhetoric.

Actual events don’t align with the Rhodes-Obama rhetoric. Vladimir Putin, frustratingly, keeps failing to be bent by the Arc of History (™) and doing whatever he wants, seizing Crimea and abetting Bashar al-Assad. Perhaps he notices the nonstop signaling from the White House that there’s a new sheriff in town, and said sheriff thinks crime-fighters have been way too tough on outlaws. “The error that we may have made is Putin doesn’t seem to pursue Russia’s national interests. He pursues Putin’s interests,” Rhodes says. In other words, surprise! — Putin doesn’t share a liberal American Democrat’s vision about what’s best for Russia. Only liberal American Democrats would need seven and a half years to figure this out. Power, riding in the back of a car, marvels at Russia’s naughtiness: “If they’re allowed to bully they just bully more.” Funny how that works. Kerry, after Russia breaks the ceasefire in Aleppo in 2016: “It’s just so frustrating because we really had an agreement that could have worked. And unfortunately we have some people who didn’t want to cooperate.”

So The Final Year is about the Obama Doctrine, also known as hashtag diplomacy, also known as leading from behind, also known as voting “present” — also known as hands-off. That a lot of people can get killed while you’re wringing them is the movie’s unintended lesson. Summing up, I give you none other than Samantha “Soft” Power herself, who near the end of the doc says in a moment of sudden clarity: “My world is a world where you have 65 million displaced. Yemen and Syria and Iraq, Nigeria, Cameroon and Chad, Central African Republic, Burundi, South Sudan, Darfur, you know, the list, Afghanistan, of course, Venezuela imploding . . . There are concerns about terrorism and there is a fear of the other and . . . all the trendlines — on democracy, right now, at least — are going in the wrong direction.”

If only she or her friends had held positions of authority, maybe they could have done something about some of that.

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