Magazine | August 27, 2018, Issue

The World as It Wasn’t

Ben Rhodes (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
The World as It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House, by Ben Rhodes (Penguin Random House, 480 pp., $30)

Five days before the 2016 election, after campaigning for Hillary Clinton in Florida, President Obama boarded Marine One. Aides flagged an email from the White House political director relaying the Clinton campaign’s final requests of the incumbent: Would he, the day before the election, stump in Penn­sylvania and Michigan?      

“Michigan?” Obama asked, eyes wide. “That’s not good.”

In the weeks that followed Donald Trump’s victory, the president struggled to understand how his onetime rival and former secretary of state had squandered what had appeared, at virtually all points, to be a nearly insurmountable polling lead. At times Obama seemed to understand that it boiled down to the deficiencies of the Democratic nominee, whom he himself, years earlier, had deemed “likable enough.” “Five percent unemployment. Gas at two bucks a gallon. We had it all teed up!” he railed in his limousine, cruising through the streets of Lima on his final foreign trip.

Yet the president was equally prone to reading the election result as a nativist, and inherently racist, reaction to his own record in office. “Maybe we pushed too far,” he mused aloud to Ben Rhodes, his deputy national-security adviser for eight years. “Maybe people just want to fall back into their tribe.”

Intimacy prevails in Rhodes’s engrossing memoir of his global journey at Barack Obama’s side from the 2008 primaries to the Trump transition. Charged with overseeing all communications relating to foreign policy and national security, Rhodes ultimately became an operator himself, personally brokering with Raúl Castro’s son the American rapprochement with Cuba. Rhodes’s recollection is smart and funny, poignant and biting, anxious and depressed: the richest firsthand account of Obama the man yet in print, an early landmark in the historical literature of his presidency. Having previously earned an MFA from New York University, Rhodes sketches the men and women who surrounded Obama, at home and on the world stage, with a novelist’s eye for physical de­scription and comic detail.

Yet however successful Rhodes’s book is as literature, it cannot be taken at face value as history. The World as It Is hardly presents the truth as it is, or as it was during the events depicted; as in all political memoirs, the primary objective is a mix of vindication and absolution. Readers who followed the news in the Obama era will accordingly recognize the themes and elaborations in these pages as rehashes of familiar talking points, the elisions and omissions as reprises of evasions and obfuscations past.

Case in point: the Iran nuclear agreement, the Obama administration’s signature foreign-policy initiative. Rhodes today pretends that the Obama administration inherited from the Bush-Cheney White House a situation in which the Iranian nuclear program had been allowed to grow so advanced that the hands of the Obama team were effectively constrained in any negotiations to pare it back. Rhodes writes: “Barack Obama took office after Iran had the scientific knowledge and infrastructure necessary to build a nuclear weapon. By the time we reached the interim agreement in 2013, they were less than a year from producing enough of the raw materials for the purpose.”

This argument mirrors that of Secretary of State John Kerry, the architect of the nuclear deal, who told reporters in November 2013: “In 2003, when the Iranians made an offer to the [Bush] administration with respect to their nuclear program, there were 164 centrifuges. That offer was not taken. . . . Today there are 19,000 centrifuges and growing.” Both men glide blithely over the period in which they were entrusted with U.S. policy. As I reported for Fox News in December 2013, the number of centrifuges the Iranians had installed when Obama took office, as derived from official reports of the International Atomic Energy Agency, was at most around 5,000 — meaning that 74 percent of the centrifuges were installed on Obama’s watch. By that measure, the world as it was on January 20, 2009, was a lot less dangerous than in 2013, after Obama’s first term.

Still stung by allegations that he misled the public to sell the nuclear deal — a perception that grew after an infamous 2016 New York Times Magazine interview in which Rhodes boasted of creating an “echo chamber” for that purpose — the author omits some of the most blatant untruths deployed in that sales campaign.

He cites extensive consultation with Israeli technical experts undertaken so the administration could “prioritize their concerns” in the negotiations. But the arc of the nuclear talks bent toward concession, not Jerusalem. Surely Rhodes meant to signal the administration’s prioritization of Israeli concerns when he told CNN in April 2015, “Under this deal, you will have anywhere, anytime, 24/7 access, as it relates to the nuclear facilities that Iran has.”

But not only did the deal lack such access — reserved, toothlessly, only for Iran’s declared facilities, not its suspected ones — the top U.S. official at the talks, speaking three months after Rhodes, exposed the falsity of the assurances he had provided. “I never uttered the words ‘anywhere, any time,’” Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “nor was it ever part of the discussion that we had with the Iranians.”

The same pattern marks the author’s treatment of Benghazi: the September 2012 attack at a U.S. compound in Libya, carried out by a terrorist group affiliated with al-Qaeda, that claimed the lives of four Americans, including ambassador Christopher Stevens. Americans’ concern over the incident, with an election looming, was real and deep. They were horrified by the ease with which terrorists had overrun a U.S. diplomatic compound in a hostile setting; by the cruelty of the killers; by the disclosure of how the State Department repeatedly rejected Stevens’s pleas for additional security; and by the untruths promulgated by the spokesmen Rhodes supervised.

Yet The World as It Is makes no mention of any of those things and instead casts the subject as a carnival of conspiracy theory staged by amoral Republicans and right-wing media, one result of which was the vilification of Rhodes and the ambassador to the United Nations. “What Susan Rice said on those stupid Sunday shows,” Rhodes insists today, referring to the five TV appearances Rice made four days after the attacks — in which she cast the atrocity not as the planned terrorist attack it was but as a protest gone amok, a spontaneous reaction to an incendiary Internet video that Chris Stevens’s deputy later testified was “a non-event” in Libya — “was what we believed at the time, what the intelligence community told us we could say.”  

Only those steeped in the fading history of Benghazi would recognize the falsity of this claim. As ABC News and The Weekly Standard’s Stephen Hayes reported in 2013, the talking points that Rice relied on were prepared initially by the Central Intelligence Agency and then reworked eleven times by the State Department and White House, a process overseen by Rhodes. The result was that, far from delivering “what the intelligence community told us we could say,” the White House version of events eliminated the CIA’s references to Ansar al-Sharia as the terrorist group responsible for the attacks and, too, the agency’s reminder that it had warned policymakers about the terrorist threat in Benghazi.

It was also under Rhodes’s supervision that White House press secretary Jay Carney, perhaps without knowing better, falsely told the press corps, three days after Rice’s TV tour: “As our ambassador to the United Nations said on Sunday and as I said the other day, based on what we know now and knew at the time, we have no evidence of a preplanned or premeditated attack” (emphasis added).

And on it goes, with every major foreign-policy subject of the era subjected to such subjective versions of the truth: Egypt and the Arab Spring, the Syrian civil war, the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, etc. Some of the baddest villains in The World as It Is are the Republicans and Benjamin Netanyahu, the Saudis and Emiratis, AIPAC and Mitch McConnell. If Netflix, newly entangled with the Obamas, should option Rhodes’s memoir, you’ll be able to say with confidence: I’ve seen this movie before.

Space does not permit here an exhaustive rebuttal of all the rehashes, elisions, and obfuscations. Timeliness compels the effort, though, in one area: Russia, and Rhodes’s recounting of the deliberations inside the Oval Office about how to handle the Kremlin’s intervention in the 2016 elections. Readers need not subscribe to any particular opinion of Donald Trump’s conduct during the campaign, or in Helsinki this summer, to recognize a large blind spot on this subject in The World as It Is.

“From my first day at work” in January 2009, Rhodes recalls, “I’d been told to assume that any unclassified email I sent, any nonsecure phone call I made, could be intercepted by the Russians.” (John Podesta’s failure to heed such warnings goes unmentioned.) Elsewhere Rhodes laments how “so many of the things that clouded our second term — Assad’s brutal war, the permanent crisis in Ukraine, Edward Snowden living in a Moscow apartment, relentless hacking — were directly tied to the decisions of this one man,” Vladimir Putin. Huddling with the president in 2016, Rhodes fretted about the effectiveness of Russian cyber operations. “I know,” he quotes Obama as replying. “They’ve found the soft spot in our democracy.”

If Obama and Rhodes recognized at the outset the broad range of the threat posed by the Kremlin, if this recognition never abated and in fact crystallized, by late 2016, into an understanding of Moscow as America’s prime antagonist on virtually all fronts — in Syria and Ukraine, at Turtle Bay and across cyberspace — then where is the apology to Mitt Romney? During their third debate, in October 2012, after the Republican nominee had identified Russia as the biggest geopolitical threat to America, Obama sarcastically derided his opponent: “The 1980s are now calling to ask for their foreign policy back.” Yet Rhodes’s memoir validates Romney’s judgment. “I think this Russia thing,” the author recalls confiding to a colleague after Trump’s victory, “is a lot worse than we knew.”

It’s almost as bad a misjudgment as the one the president made — also omitted in The World as It Is — when he cavalierly dismissed ISIS, five months before the group’s seizure of Mosul, as a “jayvee team” harmlessly donning Lakers uniforms.

Studded throughout The World as It Is are verbatim quotes from Rhodes’s conversations with consequential figures: the president, heads of state, other White House and intelligence officials. These quotes give the book its air of urgency and intimacy, and make it compelling reading. Biographers of Obama, and historians on a myriad of subjects, will be repeating these quotes forever (as I did in the opening paragraphs above). Absent is any explanation as to how Rhodes can deliver them so confidently. Since he includes no qualifications, no boilerplate formulation about quotations being used only when the author was absolutely certain of what was said, we are obliged to wonder: Did Rhodes rely on a diary or other contemporaneous notes? Did he take with him, after leaving the White House, transcripts of Obama’s calls with foreign leaders?

Numerous exchanges quoted herein appear sensitive enough to have been classified; their publication in real time would surely have triggered more of the no-holds-barred leak investigations (ignored by Rhodes, naturally) for which the Obama administration became infamous. Was this book vetted by the intelligence community? Rhodes never says. Those biographers and historians will be well advised to nail this down.

In a memoir chronicling how the narrator’s “life and reputation” were “ravaged” by his exposure to public service, how the experience prematurely “aged” him, how he steadily became “less joyful at working in the White House and more burdened by it,” a tale of deepening disaffection from not only his work but his wife, family, and friends, the fragility of reality emerges as a central theme. Rhodes writes often of the “intangible” ways in which things occur, or in which he perceives them (“the one thing I never lost faith in was the confidence that I was part of something that was right in some intangible way”). Invariably he sees a duality in politics and truth, a chasm between U.S. opinion and foreign sentiment; “absurd,” “absurdity,” and “absurdities” arise on practically every other page.

This apprehension seems to my eye to be attributable not, as Rhodes asserts, solely to the doggedness and obstructionism of the president’s political enemies — those whom (Rhodes omits to mention) Obama once threatened publicly to “punish,” fancifully imagined here as worse, more vicious and intractable, than the people and forces arrayed against Richard Nixon or George W. Bush — but to the author’s own predispositions: as a writer, a partisan polemicist, a lover of the historical fiction of Don DeLillo, and an aspiring novelist himself (Oasis of Love, Rhodes’s unpublished novel, follows a woman who devastates her boyfriend by joining a Texas megachurch).

Where the September 11 attacks galvanized countless young men and women to enlist in the military or otherwise serve their country, the effect on Rhodes, forever preoccupied with narratives, was different: “I was twenty-nine years old when I went to work for the Obama campaign. . . . The catastrophes of 9/11 and the Iraq War had propelled me there, in search of a better story about America, and myself.”

Now he’s told it.

James Rosen — Mr. Rosen, a former chief Washington correspondent for Fox News, is the author of three books, including Cheney One on One.

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