Obama’s Boy Genius Grows Up

Ben Rhodes addresses the White House press corps.
(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Julia Ioffe
June 7, 2021

Let me start by saying that I like Ben Rhodes. He is kind and smart, and, by all accounts, a decent human being. When I moved to Washington in 2012, he was then-President Obama’s trusted advisor—a wunderkind speechwriter turned foreign policy factotum—and my only interactions with him were those befitting a reporter and her source. After the end of Obama’s second term, he followed the path of so many Obama staffers who hadn’t expected a Trump victory. He went on TV, he wrote a book—Rhodes famously has an MFA in creative writing—and, instead of waiting at a think tank for the wheel of fortune to return a Democrat to the White House and hire people like him, he started his own foreign policy initiative.

He also prepared to write another book that would try to explain what the hell was happening in America by connecting the paradigm with what the hell was happening abroad. He would talk to pro-democracy activists from Hungary, Russia, and Hong Kong, as well as Cuba and Myanmar, and through them describe why the American-led post-Cold War world order had become a vanishing fiction.

I was asked to do an event for the resultant book, After the Fall, and I agreed, looking forward to reading what I was sure would be a smart and sophisticated analysis from a smart and sophisticated person. And that’s why I say I like Ben—because I really didn’t like his book, and saying something like that publicly in D.C. is a gross violation of the culture of superficial niceness that provides convenient cover for the shivving that people do for a living here. You can shiv, but you have to be nice. The worst thing you can be in Washington is not nice, which is why I want to make clear that I like Ben Rhodes as a person even though I kind of hated his book.

Here’s the thing about After the Fall: it is crushingly obvious. Its primary conclusion—that unregulated American capitalism and information technology have helped raise the global anti-democratic tide that has returned to our shores; that Trump is Putin is Orban—is hardly novel. But it isn’t offensive. The problem is his tone of wide-eyed wonder about the discovery of truths that are painfully self-evident.

Ben describes meeting activists for coffee, staring at hotel room ceilings deep in thought, or sitting in front of Buddhas, “trying to feel something,” and experiencing insights that I really hope he understood years ago, before he became a foreign policy advisor to the Leader of the Free World at the age of thirty-two. He learned, for instance, that Frances Fukuyama’s proclamation that the fall of the Berlin Wall heralded the “end of history” was near-sighted. That, in fact, “history never ends,” that history is a bloody, awful business, and that the progress of humankind is neither inevitable nor irreversible. He writes:

If, like me, you were born in the twilight of the twentieth century, you have to remind yourself that the elongated reason cycle of the postwar years, and the progress it enabled—from the civil rights movement in the United States to the relative peace among nations— is not the norm in world history. This is what is so dangerous about [Hungarian president and strongman Viktor] Orban and his fellow travelers, including in the United States—the fact that they represent the historical norm, not the aberration, and that historical norm leads inevitably to violence and subjugation.

I mean, yeah.

He remembers a trip to Eastern Europe he took as a young man, shortly before the 9/11 attacks, and sees it as a relic of a simpler time when America “bestrode” the world “like a colossus,” a time when there was “an inevitability to world events, the mindset that the rest of the world was a series of places on a map to be visited and measured against the clearly superior way of life that we’d fine-tuned.”

He learns that many Russians, once America’s geopolitical equals (at least in theory), didn’t feel much elation that America had triumphed in the Cold War, but rather felt humiliated and enraged by it. Here’s Rhodes:

It never occurred to me as a child that Russians were raised to hold views that were the mirror image of mine. The Russian experience was so remote that I couldn’t see the world through a Russian’s eyes other than to assume that any right-thinking Russian must have wanted to live like an American, even if it meant submitting to some form of American supremacy.

I read this passage to my mother—I am currently on a Ioffe family vacation—and, groaning, she remembered how the families who welcomed us to the United States when we arrived from the alien planet called the U.S.S.R. presented her with hand-me-down pillows and asked her, “Did you have pillows in the Soviet Union?”

And I think this is really the crux of it, of why this book bothered me to the extent it did: Ben, like the American women helping us clueless refugees adjust to a new country, means well. These people want to help, they really do. They are driven by benevolence. But they are, on a certain fundamental level, incapable of an empathy that isn’t rooted in naiveté and condescension. Or in inappropriate comparisons, as when Ben compares himself to Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny. Yes, Navalny has had a harder time of things, Ben writes, but their righteous anger at corruption is pretty similar, no? (When Ben was writing this book, Alexey was still a free man, still unpoisoned by a weapons-grade nerve agent, though now he is recovering from a nearly successful assassination attempt and in jail for the forseeable future—unlike Ben, who lives in L.A.) There’s an assumption that America is inherently different and that Americans are just better, immune to the kinds of undemocratic things that other, less advanced peoples do, like storming their own parliament in an effort to overturn a free and fair election—only to wonder how this could possibly happen in America when it does.

It takes a certain kind of privilege, as Ben occasionally acknowledges, to be surprised by the darkness of history. Here is a man—a smart man, an educated man—who, in his own telling, is flabbergasted to discover for himself and his reader things that have been obvious—and written about—for years. Here is a man discovering this years after he leaves the White House, where he read the most sensitive intelligence briefings and whence he traveled the world, meeting with foreign leaders as a key foreign policy advisor to the most powerful person in the world.

And here is a man who got that job at thirty-two years of age because he was a speechwriter on a campaign that was full of young male speechwriters, which is a job he trained for while working for the 9/11 Commission, a job he got through a family connection, where several prominent older white men took notice of him and introduced him to other prominent older white men. Before that, his experience of the world was limited to the kind of privileged things that curious young men from the Upper East Side and Collegiate do: He had studied abroad in Paris and done a little backpacking in Europe.

When we spoke at the book event hosted by New York’s Strand bookstore last week, I asked Ben whether he thought he would have been better served in the White House had he not been so young and if he had been a little better versed in history—and if he had done some of this learning about the world before taking such an important job. Ben thought this was not a very nice question, and he was not very happy about it. He blinked, clearly offended, and responded:

“I don’t think so, Julia … It’s not like the people who had a lot of experience, they tended to be the people who had most internalized the lesson that the United States could do what we want and that these things were settled. My experience of being in debates in the Situation Room, actually, was that it was the generation that had kind of come of age and been in the government in the 90s that had kind of failed to see the excesses of American foreign policy and that time was kind of frozen. You can’t get something like the Iraq War without thinking that you can do whatever you want in the world …When I walked into the White House, I felt that we don’t control things in the same way that people might think … Sure I wish I knew all the things I know now, you always wish that. I also think that my youth at times was an asset because a lot of the people that learned their lesson of what American foreign policy is in the 90s, kind of felt there was this permanent capacity to shape events around the world. And that’s the kind of mindset that I think has actually gotten America in trouble in terms of overreach, and overreach that has fueled a backlash from the likes of Russia and China in the last decade or two.”

It’s a fair point—that seniority is no guarantee of wisdom—but it’s also a false dichotomy. The choice isn’t between having no experience or the wrong experience, and it shouldn’t be between a bright-eyed dovish ingenue and a cynical neo-conservative hawk.

The point is that with great power—the kind of life-and-death power that America often wields in the world—comes great responsibility. Responsibility to see the world as it is, not as political science theory or the politics of the moment would like it to be; to know its history; to understand that there isn’t all that much that separates people in other countries from ourselves—and that they don’t exist merely for our journeys of self-discovery. And responsibility to be qualified to make important decisions, qualified by something other than smarts and potential.