How Obama's team lost its innocence

Way back in the 20th century, America's foreign policy principles were described with genteel phrases like the "Truma...

Posted: Jun 13, 2018 9:02 AM
Updated: Jun 13, 2018 9:02 AM

Way back in the 20th century, America's foreign policy principles were described with genteel phrases like the "Truman Doctrine," "containment" and the "Pottery Barn rule." In today's cruder world, the policy of the Obama administration was summed up by its leader as "don't do stupid shit." And now, we learn from Jeffrey Goldberg's conversation with a "senior White House official with direct access to the president and his thinking" that the Trump doctrine is "We're America, bitch."

But once you get past the fulminating rhetoric coming from today's White House, it's possible to see how President Donald Trump and President Barack Obama actually have a similar view about American military interventions -- that a more modest US role in the world is desirable.

Trump has followed the Obama playbook of avoiding large-scale conventional wars and instead has relied on Special Forces, drones and cyberwarfare that were the hallmarks of Obama's tenure as commander in chief. Trump is even pursuing diplomacy with the North Koreans, which is looking more and more like the diplomatic dance that Obama's team engaged in with the Iranians.

Indeed, Trump has gone even further to curry favor with an adversary than Obama ever did with the Iranians by personally meeting with North Korea's supreme leader, Kim Jong Un, on Tuesday in Singapore, where Trump declared, "We both want to do something. We both are going to do something. And we have developed a very special bond."

For insight on that Obama playbook, it makes sense to consult Ben Rhodes' fine new memoir of the Obama years. Rhodes, who began his career in Washington working for retired Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton, the former vice chair of the 9/11 Commission, signed on in 2007 as a 29-year-old speechwriter for the Democratic primary candidate, Barack Obama, who was then mounting what seemed like a quixotic campaign against the Democratic frontrunner, Hillary Clinton.

Rhodes went on to be one of Obama's deputy national security advisers. As a result, Rhodes was "in the room" for almost every foreign policy decision of significance that Obama made during his eight years in office and in a privileged position to chronicle how the idealism of the early Obama administration faded as it confronted the realities of an often-Hobbesian world.

High drama

Rhodes clearly kept good notes during his time in the West Wing, and he has written a fascinating account of the Obama administration, which began with the high drama of Obama's speech in Cairo in 2009 and the hoped-for reset with the Muslim world and ended with the high drama of the election of President Trump, who has now largely undone Obama's key foreign policy accomplishments, such as the Iranian nuclear deal, the Paris climate agreement and his rapprochement with Cuba.

Rhodes explains well the toll that a constantly demanding White House job took on his closest relationships. At one point, he hid in a closet in his apartment to check his BlackBerry so his long-suffering wife wouldn't see him reading his messages for the millionth time, a scene that any workaholic will recognize with a dry chuckle.

Rhodes, whose mother's family is Jewish, also paints a dispiriting picture of what it's like to work in a highly polarized political environment where far-right media outlets simultaneously painted him as "part of a global Jewish conspiracy" and also as a "virulent anti-Semite, covering for the Muslim Brotherhood."

As the pressure mounts, Rhodes smokes more and, succumbing to insomnia, watches every episode of Anthony Bourdain's show, "Parts Unknown," on CNN. It is Rhodes who engineers the dim sum dinner in Vietnam between Obama and Bourdain in 2016.

Rhodes spent a great deal of time with Obama, and there are sharp portraits of how the President thinks and acts interspersed throughout the memoir. Regarding Russian President Vladimir Putin, Rhodes writes, Obama "neither liked nor loathed Putin, nor did he subscribe to the view that Putin was all that tough. 'If he was that sure of himself,' Obama said, 'he wouldn't have his picture taken riding around with his shirt off.'"

In another scene, as Obama is close to ending his second term, the President jumps into "the Beast," the heavily armored limo in which the president always rides, and takes out his iPad to play the rap song, "Thrift Shop," by Macklemore. The President starts bopping and dancing to the beat, along with his usually ultrasober national security adviser, Susan Rice. The Secret Service agents in front of the limo continue to stare off into the distance, impassively.

Obama and American interventionism

Rhodes covers a lot of waterfront in his book, including his own leadership of the negotiations with the Cubans to normalize relations with the United States, which was achieved with considerable sotto voce help from the Vatican.

He also writes in some detail about the decision-making around the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, the opening that Obama made to the military regime in Burma and also about the Iran deal.

The title of Rhodes' memoir, "The World As It Is," suggests a certain pragmatism about the world, but that was not the state of mind that Rhodes and the other younger members of Obama's newly minted national security team had when they first came into office in early 2009.

During the Rwandan genocide, Rice, who would become Obama's first United Nations ambassador, was an official in the Clinton administration working on Africa.

Samantha Power, a senior director on Obama's National Security Council (who later became UN ambassador), had literally written the book on genocide, the Pulitzer-winning, "A Problem from Hell," and as a journalist, she had reported on Serbian atrocities during the civil wars in Yugoslavia.

For Rice and Power, "Never Again" was more than just a slogan, and the emerging liberal doctrine of the "Responsibility to Protect" civilians from the predations of dictators was an article of faith.

Casting aside an ally

When the crowds began to gather in Cairo's Tahrir Square in January 2011 to protest the authoritarian rule of Egypt's president-for-life, Hosni Mubarak, there was little doubt which side Rhodes, Power and Rice were on. They were on the side of the crowds. They were on the side of history! And that is where Obama also came down. Obama publicly demanded that Mubarak had to go -- and in doing so cast aside a longtime American ally.

After Obama's demand, Egyptian military officers pushed Mubarak out of office, but ultimately this did not produce a more democratic Egyptian state; quite the reverse.

The older members of Obama's national security team, such as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, had all cautioned against throwing Mubarak overboard on the basis that the devil you know is better than what may come next.

Their caution was merited. Flash forward seven years: after many years of unrest that has torpedoed Egypt's vital tourism sector, today the country is ruled by another military strong man, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who is arguably even more repressive than Mubarak.

Obama's intervention in Egypt to oust Mubarak seemed to make sense at the time, but in the longer sweep of history, the skeptics in Obama's Cabinet look wiser than the Young Turks exemplified by Rhodes. At the end of his memoir, Rhodes acknowledges that he now sees "the world as it is" but still believes in "the world as it ought to be."

Lessons of Libya

During the Obama administration, the disconnect between what the world actually is and how it ought to be was never clearer than in the case of Libya. As the protests of the Arab Spring swept through Libya, the Libyan dictator, Moammar Gadhafi, mounted a ferocious campaign against his own population.

At a meeting with Obama in the Situation Room to discuss Libya, Power passed Rhodes a note warning that this was going to be the "first mass atrocity to take place on our watch."

Again the graybeards in the Situation Room argued for caution. Biden and Gates advised against embroiling the United States in Libya in yet another war in a Muslim country. Obama turned to Power and Rhodes for their advice. They both argued for American intervention to save civilians: the Responsibility to Protect.

Rice steered a strongly worded resolution through the United Nations that authorized a US-led NATO intervention to protect civilians. Gadhafi was subsequently killed by rebels, but there was scant American planning for the day after the fall of Gadhafi, and the country is now riven by a civil war. ISIS has also established itself there. Obama has described the lack of planning for post-Gadhafi Libya as his worst mistake.

Obama seemed to have overlearned the lessons of the post-Gadhafi chaos in Libya and opted to do little in Syria. One of the options Obama had in Syria was to order the bombing of the runways of Assad's air force to stop the regime's indiscriminate air strikes against civilians. Obama asked his national security team, "And what happens after we bomb the runways and Russia, Iran and Assad rebuild them?" The question wasn't designed to elicit support for greater American intervention in the conflict.

Obama then famously/infamously drew his "red line" that the United States would take military action if the Syrian regime deployed chemical weapons. When it did so, Obama decided to seek congressional authorization for striking Syria. This decision was soon rendered moot by the Syrians, who said they would surrender their chemical weapons in a deal brokered by Putin.

However, it was only a partial surrender, as the Syrian regime continued to use such weapons during the Tramp administration. Trump responded with missile strikes on two separate occasions after the Syrians had used chemical weapons.

The US would largely stay out of the Syrian war, in which 12 million people have been forced out of their homes and some 500,000 have died.

Would greater American intervention have made the Syrian war less lethal? We can't run the counterfactual, but the Syrian war is a graphic reminder that the United States doing too little overseas can be just as problematic as the United States doing too much.

In the grim calculus of war, however, greater American intervention in the Syrian conflict would surely have had real costs in American blood and treasure, as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq demonstrate.

The United States is certainly capable of sins of commission: Overthrowing the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003 with no plan for the day after and overthrowing Gadhafi in 2011 with, again, no plan for the day after, helped to spark two civil wars in the Middle East.

The United States is also capable of sins of omission, such as doing nothing as the Rwandan genocide unfolded under President Bill Clinton. Obama also did little to stop Assad from waging a total war against many of his own people.

Any American president who makes the decision to intervene or not to intervene overseas is usually making this decision with a limited menu of unappealing options that all will likely have unintended second- and third-order effects.

The shock

We all know how Rhodes' book is going to end: Americans will elect a president quite different from Obama who seems determined to roll back everything Obama had done in office. As Rhodes writes plaintively, "After all the work we'd done it was going to end like this."

In Greg Barker's film, "The Final Year," which documents Obama's foreign policy team in 2016, one of the last sequences in the film shows Rhodes early in the morning of Trump's victory. Rhodes, the professional wordsmith and hyperarticulate speaker, tries to find the words to describe what he feels as he absorbs the full implications of what Trump's victory means. Rhodes opens and closes his mouth several times, but he never finds the words to describe his shock. (Disclosure: I have worked on films with Barker and have spoken to Rhodes when he was in the White House.)

To understand the exact dimensions of how Obama absorbed the same shock, we will have to wait for his own forthcoming memoir. But for now, we have the next best thing, which is Rhodes' gripping account of his decade working with Obama as he evolved from Obama's amanuensis to his confidante and a key national security adviser.

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