TERRA INCOGNITA: Obama’s amanuensis? The apoplectic media outburst over Ben Rhodes

“Why the Ben Rhodes profile is just gross,” complained 'The Washington Post'.

Obama takes dig at "The Donald" in Correspondents' dinner speech (photo credit: screenshot)
Obama takes dig at "The Donald" in Correspondents' dinner speech
(photo credit: screenshot)
You’d think that the greatest secret of all time had been discovered, the way the media has been pouncing on a New York Times profile of Ben Rhodes, an assistant to US President Barack Obama and deputy national security adviser for strategic communications and speech writing.
“Why the Ben Rhodes profile is just gross,” complained The Washington Post. “You need to read it carefully,” worried Mother Jones. Foreign Policy was more nuanced, calling him the “***hole who is the president’s foreign policy guru.” The Washington Free Beacon called Rhodes a “liar” in its headline. The Wall Street Journal thinks that he represents the failure of journalism in the “Obama era.”
What caused such vitriol and anger? First of all the author of the piece, David Samuels, was skewered for writing a “puff piece.” Carlos Lozada at The Washington Post took issue with what he characterized as “chumminess” between the profiler and profiled. You’d think it was the first time a reporter wrote a glaringly positive portrait of their subject, the first time a profile reeked of hagiography, the first time a journalist was “chummy” with an administrative official.
Let’s try to unpack some of the criticism being thrown at Rhodes, a young man at 38, with incredible access and influence.
With an MFA in creative writing from NYU, he joined the Obama campaign in 2007 shortly after he co-authored a book about the 9/11 commission. It isn’t as if his influence wasn’t well known before. He was interviewed extensively for James Mann’s 2012 book, The Obamians.
His appearances in that book stands in stark contrast to the depiction in Samuels’ account. Instead of being arrogant, he comes off as intelligent. He notes that Americans should not always use Vietnam as a bellwether comparison for all foreign policy issues. Mann had already discovered that Rhodes was an aspiring novelist, noting he gave up a job at a New York literary agency. He wanted to preserve America’s leadership in the world, “not preside over decline.”
Rhodes had helped Obama write the speech in which the latter condemned Iraq as the “biggest foreign policy disaster in our generation.” He also wrote the Cairo speech, according to Mann. Along with other “Obamians,” Rhodes embodied a new generation, drawn from journalism and academia, and bolstering Obama’s cerebral tendencies. They supported democratic transition in the Arab world, much like George W. Bush’s neo-cons had.
So what happened? How did this idealist go from being portrayed as a youthful insider aiding Obama to being called the “ventriloquist” who mocks and manipulates the media? The way his critics portray him you’d think Rhodes has become a character from Lord of the Rings, advising Obama and the media in the role of Grima Wormtongue whispering to King Theoden of Rohan.
Rhodes is almost being portrayed as the fall guy for the Obama administration’s failures in the Arab world, and at the same time as being responsible for misleading the media.
The evidence? Samuels argues that Rhodes was a canny manipulator of media personalities attuned to supporting the Obama administration. He points fingers at Jeffrey Goldberg and Laura Rozen. Rhodes is quoted as noting that major media concerns no longer have as many foreign correspondents and “call us to explain what’s happening in Moscow and Cairo.” In his view the “average reporter we talk to is 27 years old and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns.”
Since they “know nothing,” they accept the narratives fed to them.
Almost all the reports on the Rhodes profile found it nefarious that Rhodes not only mocked the media but had a low opinion of the cobwebbed “foreign policy establishment” that he derisively called “the blob.” Rhodes has “contempt for allies,” concluded Lee Smith at The Weekly Standard. Smith felt it was fair to characterize Rhodes as the “Holden Caulfield” of US foreign policy, but The Washington Post’s Lozada was nonplussed at this “overused literary reference.” The adviser is mocked for having a “mind meld” with the president but at the same time is seen as insidiously evil. Thomas Ricks at Foreign Policy feels “this Rhodes guy reminds me of the Kennedy smart guys who helped get us into the Vietnam War.” He is “cynical and ignorant,” and may even treat Secretary of State John Kerry and Vice President Joe Biden as “puppets.”
ISN’T THIS just a tempest in a teapot? Rarely have I seen so many articles devoted to something that seems so middling. Can it possibly be true that Ben Rhodes sits at the intersection of all US foreign policy-making? That he holds the puppet-strings of the media, of those tweeting about policy, that he writes the president’s speeches and keeps the “blob” away from the oval office, that he manipulates so much and is so central? Samuels portrays him as a kind of Lady Macbeth, the power behind the throne. “He strategized and ran the successful Iran-deal... helped negotiate the opening of American relations with Cuba...has been a co-writer of all Obama’s major foreign policy speeches.” He does “twelve jobs,” according to another quote.
The real story here is that the Obama administration would like to have Rhodes take a little heat for its last, flailing year. When someone had to go insult Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, rumor has it, the detail was passed to Rhodes. He’s the messenger.
So why are they shooting at him? Because there is an 11th commandment, and that is “thou shalt not insult the establishment media.”
What kind of person brags about manipulating the media and thinks they will survive? There is one insight about Rhodes that may actually help explain US policy in the long run.
As I’ve argued in the past, a central feature of the Obama administration has been a dislike for the old “Arabists” in the State Department and a policy driven by Secretary Kerry that sought to reposition the US closer to Iran. In an “off the record” explanation, Rhodes said that “the world of the Sunni Arabs that the American establishment built has collapsed.” That’s a very accurate depiction of the Middle East today.
As for whether Rhodes is too young to have such influence, that’s a critique that smacks more of jealousy than anything else. Richard Rush, who was John Quincy Adams’ secretary of state, was only 37.
The jealousy may stem from the fact that Rhodes comes from a literary background; many media people fume that this man rose to such heights. Why won’t the president listen to us? The profile of Rhodes seems to have held up a mirror to the media and Washington insiders and people don’t like what they see. He characterizes the media as often untrained, ignorant and easy to manipulate because of their lack of experience. Instead of facing that critique, many in the media want to blame the messenger. Rather than wondering how the wool was pulled over the eyes, people are angry that there are sheep who have been sheared. The fact is that Rhodes hit a nerve, the media has suffered an incredible abattoir of talent with downsizing and focus on immediate social media results. Obama’s administration may have exploited that, as it exploited the old media tendency to cultivate close relations with the oval office, trading access for positive headlines. So, everyone who bought into the “if there is no Iran deal there will be a war” nonsense is now unhappy to have been so easily tricked.
Rhodes said he wanted to be a creative writer. He’s written about Cuba, Iran, Libya, Syria, Iraq, Israel and Egypt.
It might just be that he sometimes told a narrative more befitting Lord of the Rings – the problem is, this is a true story, and you’re just a bit character in it.
Follow the author @Sfrantzman