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Inside Obama's White House

Mr Obama's willingness to be honest about the West's imperial past led conservative critics to accuse him of conducting an "apology tour," a meretricious dodge

Joe Klein | NYT 

The mass of political memoirs are sad occasions for score-settling and self-defence, accompanied by the occasional juicy anecdote intended to hype sales and betray confidences. This is not one of those. Ben Rhodes, who served Barack Obama as a foreign policy advisor and speechwriter from beginning to end, has written a book that reflects the president he served — intelligent, amiable, compelling and principled. And there is something more: The World as It Is is a classic coming-of-age story, about the journey from idealism to realism, told with candour and immediacy. It is not a heavy policy book. There are anecdotes galore, but they illuminate rather than scandalise. Even Donald Trump — a politician who seems the omega to Mr Obama’s alpha — is treated with horrified amazement rather than vitriol. The basic doctrine of American foreign policy in the modern age should be Hippocratic: First, do no harm. Mr Obama’s succinct and colloquial corollary was, to paraphrase: “Don’t do stupid stuff.” His predecessor, George W Bush, had made one of the worst blunders in American history, going to war in Iraq. Mr Obama’s job, coming to office, was to rectify relations with allies who had disapproved of the war and also with the Islamic world, which saw Iraq as the latest act of Western imperialism. Mr Obama’s willingness to be honest about the West’s imperial past led conservative critics to accuse him of conducting an “apology tour,” a meretricious dodge. They ignored the other half of his message, which gave it an elegant balance: “Islam has to recognise the contributions that the West has made to articulate certain principles that are universal.” All presidents do stupid stuff overseas; the world beyond our ocean borders is too complicated to be fully known. Mr Obama made mistakes of optimism. He assumed the old, autocratic order in the Middle East was about to change; he underestimated the power of tribalism, which provided identity amid amorphous globalism. Rhodes encouraged these delusions — along with the White House advisers Samantha Power and Susan Rice, who professed a somewhat tortured liberal militarism, a faith in humanitarian intervention. The story of how Rhodes progressed from this idealism to a more nuanced vision of “the world as it is” is at the heart of this book. “I was part of a cohort of younger staffers … who shared a distaste for the corrupt way in which the Middle East was ruled,” Mr Rhodes writes. Mr Obama sided with the idealists early on, especially when protesters filled Cairo’s Tahrir Square in the first flush of the Arab Spring. “If it were up to him,” Rhodes reports Obama saying, “he’d prefer that the ‘Google guy’ run Egypt, referring to Wael Ghonim … who was helping to lead the protest movement.” Mr Rhodes writes that Obama “didn’t mean it literally. … But his senior staff was in a different place.” Indeed, Vice President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were all counselling caution: Don’t be so quick to oust the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. There was no guarantee that democracy would ensue — and, in fact, democracy led to an electoral victory by the Muslim Brotherhood, which led to a military coup. The same mistake was made in Libya. The dictator Muammar Qaddafi threatened to massacre his opponents in Benghazi.

Susan Rice compared the situation to Rwanda, where Bill Clinton was said to have “allowed” a genocide. But military intervention — and the eventual removal of Qaddafi — led to chaos. There were, Mr Rhodes slowly realised, events in the world beyond America’s influence. By the time Bashar Assad dropped poison gas on his populace, both Mr Obama and Mr Rhodes were having second thoughts. Mr Obama had established the use of chemical weapons as a “red line” and then chose not to respond militarily when Assad crossed it. Mr Obama calculated that any military action that would have an actual impact on Assad’s behaviour might lead to a wider war. He may well have been right, but he seemed weak at the time. Mr Trump, by contrast, seemed strong, but the effect of his strikes appears to have been negligible. Mr Rhodes’s portrait of Mr Obama is affectionate and respectful. The president is moderate, never the humanitarian firebrand that his younger staffers are — thoughtful, sane and cool. Trumpists will, no doubt, translate these qualities into aloofness, a lack of conviction and a lack of strength. But Mr Obama’s deliberative nature led, more often than not, to the right answers — or, at the very least, to positions that did not make an explosive world more dangerous. is a charming and humble guide through an unprecedented presidency. He writes well, even though he has a master’s degree in creative writing, and he has a good eye. There is no retributive backbiting of internal opponents like Hillary Clinton or Stanley McChrystal. In fact, Rhodes is far more candid about his own foibles. He drinks hard liquor, to the point of an occasional hangover. He smokes, furtively. He eats Chinese takeout, to excess. And he never quite loses his idealism; in a crass political era, he impressively avoids becoming a cynic. As a result, his achievement is rare for a political memoir: He has written a humane and honourable book.


A Memoir of the Obama White House Ben Rhodes Random House 450 pages; $30

© 2018 The New York Times News Service

First Published: Sun, June 10 2018. 23:50 IST