War Stories

Ben Rhodes Needs Some Fresh Air

Why Obama’s foreign-policy adviser comes across as insular and self-centered in a New York Times Magazine profile.

Ben Rhodes
Ben Rhodes, left, is Obama’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. Above, Rhodes, Obama, and Denis McDonough on Air Force One, June 4, 2009.

Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images

About a week ago, I told a friend that I didn’t understand how people like Ben Rhodes—who’s been working as deputy national security adviser since President Obama’s first day in the White House—could stand the nonstop pressure without going crazy. Then came David Samuels’ profile of Rhodes in the New York Times Magazine, and I wondered if he’d gone nuts after all.

The piece quotes Rhodes as ragging on the press corps (27-year-olds who “literally know nothing” other than political campaigns) and the foreign policy establishment (“the Blob”); boasting of how he manipulated reporters and commentators on the Iran nuclear deal (“We created an echo chamber,” with reporters “saying things that validated what we had given them to say”); and boosting his own status considerably (“I don’t know anymore where I begin and Obama ends”).

Why was an experienced operator like Rhodes saying these things to a reporter on the record? And does he believe what he was saying?

It’s a very strange article all round. Samuels presents Rhodes—a 38-year-old, erstwhile aspiring novelist—as “the Boy Wonder of the Obama White House,” “the single most influential voice shaping American foreign policy” besides the president himself, “the voice in which America speaks to the world.” The story’s headline hails Rhodes still more dramatically as “Obama’s foreign-policy guru” who “rewrote the rules of diplomacy for the digital age.”

Many have commented on the article as a fascinating, if gruesome portrait of how power works and how official narratives are woven in the age of Obama and social media. It is all that, but not entirely in the way that many bloggers and tweeters have inferred. It struck me as interesting in two ways: first, as a story of a senior staffer who has been hunkered down in a windowless West Wing office for too long; second, as the story of a freelance writer—David Samuels, the author of this piece—who has an ideological agenda to push and who hides it by hyping the importance of the man he’s profiling.

As for the man in the windowless room: Contrary to the impression Samuels seeks to convey (“It has been rare to find Ben Rhodes’ name in news stories”), Rhodes is the best-known second-tier official (his title is deputy national security adviser for strategic communications) in many years; he has been quoted on the record in hundreds, maybe thousands, of news stories about Obama’s foreign policy. But the West Wing is an insular place, whose denizens are prone to circle the wagons when faced with attacks. Samuels writes that Rhodes expresses “aggressive contempt for anyone or anything that stands in the president’s way”—which is true, but this is typical of many White House staffers I’ve known in the past 30 years (and, judging from histories I’ve read, true of earlier eras, too).

Rhodes is far from the first White House aide who finds the line between the president’s voice and his own disturbingly blurring. This is what politicians’ spokesmen do. They convey their bosses’ views, they help write the bosses’ speeches; they have to learn how to think and talk like the boss. Some take this to extremes. When Ted Sorensen worked in this role for President John F. Kennedy, he often called congressmen on the phone and pretended to be Kennedy. (He did a perfect imitation of his voice.)

Samuels notes that Rhodes’ first significant job was serving as the note-taker for the Iraq Study Group, the commission led by James Baker and Lee Hamilton, which excoriated President George W. Bush’s Iraq policy. Hamilton is quoted as saying Rhodes “could come into a meeting and decide what was decided,” calling this “a very important quality for a staffer.” Samuels adds that this is a quality of immense “power,” but it’s not. The fact that Rhodes frequently speaks with, and for, Obama does give him a certain panache in dealing with other staffers; he can say “Obama wants this, not that” and be believed. But he couldn’t lord this quality over true powers—Cabinet secretaries, for instance—and if he were ever caught misusing it, saying he was speaking for the president when he wasn’t, that would be the end of his leverage. He’s a staffer.

I should say, I’ve spoken with Rhodes many times, as have most national-security reporters and columnists. He clearly thinks highly of himself (it’s not a job for someone who doesn’t), but still I was surprised by Samuels’ claim that Rhodes regards himself as a puppet-master, sending favored reporters a “narrative,” which they gullibly transcribe, tweet, retweet, and thus make seem real.

The job’s insularity and its proximity to extreme power (Rhodes and Obama speak “several times a day”) may breed this self-centeredness. Samuels describes a scene, in the hours before Obama’s final State of the Union address, where Rhodes and his deputy, Ned Price (with whom I’ve also spoken many times), are watching TV news reports of American sailors held captive by Iranian navy officers. Rhodes turns to Price and says, “We’re resolving this because we have relationships” with Iran’s leaders, stemming from the recent nuclear talks. Samuels continues:

Price turns to his computer and begins tapping away at the administration’s well-cultivated network of officials, talking heads, columnists and newspaper reporters, web jockeys and outside advocates who can tweet at critics and tweak their stories backed up by quotations from “senior White House officials” and “spokespeople.” I watch the message bounce from Rhodes’s brain to Price’s keyboard to the three big briefing podiums … and across the Twitterverse, where it springs to life in dozens of insta-stories. It’s a tutorial in the making of a digital news microclimate—a storm that is easy to mistake these days for a fact of nature but whose author is sitting next to me right now.

Is that what it really was, though? First, this is the sort of thing that communications directors have always done. Second, the fact is, the Obama administration, mainly Secretary of State John Kerry (not Ben Rhodes), did resolve the crisis because top-level officials in Washington and Tehran had “relationships”—something that hadn’t been the case in the previous 37 years (since the 1979 revolution). Rhodes wasn’t spinning propaganda—he was reciting a fact. And his message “worked,” not because reporters were idiots, but because it seemed plausible and then, as the crisis wound down, clearly true.

Samuels treads this road further still in his depiction of how Rhodes and Price sold the Iran nuclear deal. First, he says that they contrived an “actively misleading” narrative—namely, that Obama began to engage in talks after the reformers Hassan Rouhani and Mohammad Jarav Zarif became Iran’s president and foreign minister, when in fact Obama made overtures months before Tehran’s government changed. Samuels is right about the initial overtures—but he’s wrong about the deception: Obama publicly expressed an interest in talks early on in his presidency; and after the deal was done, he made no bones about the early secret talks involving William Burns and other diplomats.

Second, he suggests that Obama and Rhodes were fudging the truth in describing Rouhani and Zarif as reformers. “Yes,” he quotes Rhodes as saying, “I would prefer that it turns out” that they “are real reformers who are going to be steering this country into the direction that I believe it can go in, because their public is educated and, in some respects, pro-American. But we are not betting on that.” Again, there’s nothing revealing about this comment. Obama said publicly, many times, that he hoped the nuclear deal would strengthen reform factions in Iran but that the deal was valuable—because it dismantled much of Iran’s nuclear machinery—even if it had no political consequences whatever.

Third (and this is where the article has sparked the greatest controversy), Samuels claims that Rhodes and Price manipulated the press like docile puppies, owing to an “information environment that is mediated less and less by experienced editors and reporters with any real prior knowledge of the subject they write about.” Samuels continues: “For those in need of more traditional-seeming forms of validation, handpicked Beltway insiders like Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic and Laura Rozen of Al-Monitor helped retail the administration’s narrative.”

Goldberg and Rozen have both responded to this portrayal. Let me just say this: The White House has long tried to cultivate Goldberg; he is seen as a potentially useful conduit to American Jews, many of whom have been skeptical of the nuclear deal and of Obama’s commitment to Israel. So, yes, Goldberg was among the “handpicked” (as were many other columnists and reporters with wide or select readership). But it’s absurd to claim that he’s a shill, someone who would help “retail the administration’s narrative”—and Rhodes has said this was entirely Samuels’ characterization, not his. Goldberg wound up supporting the deal, but with many reservations, and he has a mixed record on supporting Obama’s general foreign policy. Characterizing Rozen as a puppet is sillier still: She was by far the most enterprising and deeply sourced reporter on the Iran talks, from start to finish. Samuels quotes a White House official as saying, “Laura Rozen was my RSS feed. She would just find everything and retweet it.” Contrary to Samuels’ interpretation of this remark (that Rozen retweeted everything the White House sent her), the official was saying that Rozen retweeted everything: If you wanted a full record of what everyone was saying and reporting, her Twitter feed was your one-stop shopping place.

Here is where Samuels’ ideological agenda comes in. Samuels was an avid opponent of the Iran deal and (in Slate) made a “rational case” for Israel to bomb Iran. Nowhere is this very pertinent fact mentioned, nor is it remotely suggested that he might have motive to portray Obama’s case for the deal as deceptive and some journalists’ support for the deal as the result of ignorance and gullibility.

Every columnist I know who supported the deal (and I include myself in this lot) actually read the document, spoke with experts, and, in some cases, had qualms about certain details. Did the White House launch a massive P.R. campaign to sell the deal? Did Rhodes organize this campaign? Yes, just as Franklin Roosevelt sold U.S. entry into World War II, Richard Nixon sold the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, Jimmy Carter sold SALT II and the Panama Canal Treaty, Ronald Reagan sold the treaty banning intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe, and on it goes. Rhodes is operating in a different era, but sales have always been a part of policy, especially controversial policies. Some sales jobs are slicker than others; some policies are easier to sell than others.

Which leads to another omission from Samuels’ article. Rhodes’ main job is “strategic communication”—meaning to sell Obama’s foreign policy to Congress and the public. If Rhodes is as powerful and skillful and clever as this article claims, the question should have been asked: Why does Obama’s foreign policy have such a lousy reputation?