How Ben Rhodes rewrote the rules of diplomacy for the digital age.
Credit Doug Mills/The New York Times
Picture him as a young man, standing on the waterfront in North Williamsburg, at a polling site, on Sept. 11, 2001, which was Election Day in New York City. He saw the planes hit the towers, an unforgettable moment of sheer disbelief followed by panic and shock and lasting horror, a scene that eerily reminded him, in the aftermath, of the cover of the Don DeLillo novel “Underworld.”
Everything changed that day. But the way it changed Ben Rhodes’s life is still unique, and perhaps not strictly believable, even as fiction. He was in the second year of the M.F.A. program at N.Y.U., writing short stories about losers in garden apartments and imagining that soon he would be published in literary magazines, acquire an agent and produce a novel by the time he turned 26. He saw the first tower go down, and after that he walked around for a while, until he ran into someone he knew, and they went back to her shared Williamsburg apartment and tried to find a television that worked, and when he came back outside, everyone was taking pictures of the towers in flames. He saw an Arab guy sobbing on the subway. “That image has always stayed with me,” he says. “Because I think he knew more than we did about what was going to happen.” Writing Frederick Barthelme knockoffs suddenly seemed like a waste of time.
“I immediately developed this idea that, you know, maybe I want to try to write about international affairs,” he explained. “In retrospect, I had no idea what that meant.” His mother’s closest friend growing up ran the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which then published Foreign Policy. He sent her a letter and included what would wind up being his only piece of published fiction, a short story that appeared in The Beloit Fiction Journal. It was titled “The Goldfish Smiles, You Smile Back.” The story still haunts him, he says, because “it foreshadowed my entire life.”
It’s the day of President Obama’s final State of the Union address, Jan. 12, and the news inside the White House is not good. Luckily, the reporters on the couch in the West Wing waiting room don’t know it yet. The cream of the crop are here this early p.m. for a private, off-the-record lunch with the president, who will preview his annual remarks to Congress over a meal that is reported to be among the best in the White House chef’s repertoire.
“Blitzer!” a man calls out. A small figure in a long navy cashmere overcoat turns around, in mock surprise.
“You don’t write, you don’t call,” Wolf Blitzer, the CNN anchorman, parries.
“Well, you can call,” shoots back his former colleague Roland Martin. Their repartee thus concluded, they move on to the mutually fascinating subject of Washington traffic jams. “I used to have a 9:30 hit on CNN,” Martin reminisces. “The office was 8.2 miles from my home. It took me 45 minutes.” The CBS News anchor Scott Pelley tells a story about how members of the press destroyed the lawn during the Monica Lewinsky scandal and were told that they would be allowed back once the grass was replanted. The National Park Service replanted the grass outside the White House, but the journalists weren’t allowed back on the lawn.
Unnoticed by the reporters, Ben Rhodes walks through the room, a half-beat behind a woman in leopard-print heels. He is holding a phone to his ear, repeating his mantra: “I’m not important. You’re important.”
The Boy Wonder of the Obama White House is now 38. He heads downstairs to his windowless basement office, which is divided into two parts. In the front office, his assistant, Rumana Ahmed, and his deputy, Ned Price, are squeezed behind desks, which face a large television screen, from which CNN blares nonstop. Large pictures of Obama adorn the walls. Here is the president adjusting Rhodes’s tie; presenting his darling baby daughter, Ella, with a flower; and smiling wide while playing with Ella on a giant rug that says “E Pluribus Unum.”
For much of the past five weeks, Rhodes has been channeling the president’s consciousness into what was imagined as an optimistic, forward-looking final State of the Union. Now, from the flat screens, a challenge to that narrative arises: Iran has seized two small boats containing 10 American sailors. Rhodes found out about the Iranian action earlier that morning but was trying to keep it out of the news until after the president’s speech. “They can’t keep a secret for two hours,” Rhodes says, with a tone of mild exasperation at the break in message discipline.
As the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, Rhodes writes the president’s speeches, plans his trips abroad and runs communications strategy across the White House, tasks that, taken individually, give little sense of the importance of his role. He is, according to the consensus of the two dozen current and former White House insiders I talked to, the single most influential voice shaping American foreign policy aside from Potus himself. The president and Rhodes communicate “regularly, several times a day,” according to Denis McDonough, Obama’s chief of staff, who is known for captaining a tight ship. “I see it throughout the day in person,” he says, adding that he is sure that in addition to the two to three hours that Rhodes might spend with Obama daily, the two men communicate remotely throughout the day via email and phone calls. Rhodes strategized and ran the successful Iran-deal messaging campaign, helped negotiate the opening of American relations with Cuba after a hiatus of more than 50 years and has been a co-writer of all of Obama’s major foreign-policy speeches. “Every day he does 12 jobs, and he does them better than the other people who have those jobs,” Terry Szuplat, the longest-tenured member of the National Security Council speechwriting corps, told me. On the largest and smallest questions alike, the voice in which America speaks to the world is that of Ben Rhodes.
Like Obama, Rhodes is a storyteller who uses a writer’s tools to advance an agenda that is packaged as politics but is often quite personal. He is adept at constructing overarching plotlines with heroes and villains, their conflicts and motivations supported by flurries of carefully chosen adjectives, quotations and leaks from named and unnamed senior officials. He is the master shaper and retailer of Obama’s foreign-policy narratives, at a time when the killer wave of social media has washed away the sand castles of the traditional press. His ability to navigate and shape this new environment makes him a more effective and powerful extension of the president’s will than any number of policy advisers or diplomats or spies. His lack of conventional real-world experience of the kind that normally precedes responsibility for the fate of nations — like military or diplomatic service, or even a master’s degree in international relations, rather than creative writing — is still startling.
Part of what accounts for Rhodes’s influence is his “mind meld” with the president. Nearly everyone I spoke to about Rhodes used the phrase “mind meld” verbatim, some with casual assurance and others in the hushed tones that are usually reserved for special insights. He doesn’t think for the president, but he knows what the president is thinking, which is a source of tremendous power.
Read the rest of the NY Times article: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/08/magazine/the-aspiring-novelist-who-became-obamas-foreign-policy-guru.html?emc=eta1
There is already strong criticism following the publication of the article above by The New York Times this week. It appears Mr. Rhodes is gloating over his successes, which many are questioning whether they are in fact foreign policy victories, and his methods. It is rare for White House aides to make such boasts while the President they serve is still in office.
For those who have followed the Iran talks as we have, you already know there were secret talks between the U.S. and Iranian officials well before the fall of 2013. Since 2011-12 for sure and possibly sooner. While technically banned, the secret talks to their credit did lead to open negotiations announced in October 2013, and began in November 2013. The talks themselves began in earnest on January 24, 2014 with the signing of an “interim six-month agreement” and then to reach a permanent deal.
Remember the 15-minute phone call between the U.S. and Iranian Presidents during the annual UN meetings in September and the hallway handshake that never happened? Those were supposed to be the official first contacts between Iran and the U.S. in over 35 years. But as we learned later, we had really been talking for well over a year.
Why is this important at all? Well, for one thing the families of 3 Americans who went missing or were ‘found’ inside Iran’s Evin prison were constantly told by the State Department that their hands were tied. This was due to having no formal or informal relations or talks with Iran. However, it has been learned that John Kerry himself made at least 2 secret trips himself on behalf of the President. The first was still as a sitting U.S. Senator. The second trip, that we know of, was as Secretary of State after Kerry replaced Hillary Clinton in January 2013. Mrs. Clinton had been engineering the behind the scenes ‘relations’ with Iran previously. Secondly, as we and others have documented, the U.S. through an Omani intermediary successfully carried out the release of 4 Iranian criminals from American prisons in exchange for 3 Americans. The latter were the young hikers who were nabbed on Iran’s northern border. They were released after a couple of years, but not until “someone” paid a reported half-million dollar “bail payment”on their behalf for each one.
Yet, after the Iran nuke deal agreement was announced, the President and John Kerry bristled when asked if they were “content” to leave behind 3 other Americans: Robert Levinson, Amir Hekmati and Saeed Abedini. Mr. Levinson remains unaccounted for to this day – 9 years after his disappearance from Iran’s Kish Island.
The cause of the hostages got a needed bump in publicity when Iran, while the nuclear talks were ongoing, took Jason Resaian, a Washington Post reporter based in Teheran, prisoner. If anyone doubted that the Americans were indeed hostages or pawns, not prisoners, that were used by both sides, then why were they released coinciding with the consummation of the nuke deal along with monetary payments – MANY BILLIONS OF DOLLARS – to Iran in January? Their “legal cases” in Iran were magically swept aside which we were continually told was impossible since the Iranian judiciary was untouchable and beyond the reach or influence of Iran’s negotiators. Of course, it was always known the true power in Iran is the Supreme Leader, the Grand Ayatollah, whose mere word is the only real requirement to get things done in Iran.
Apparently, if you believe as I do that actions speak louder than words, the U.S. negotiators just didn’t believe it was that important to push the Supreme Leader of Iran or upset him by demanding the U.S. prisoners’ releases before the nuke talks even began … or over the next 2 years … even though the Ayatollah frequently uttered hostile and inflammatory statements towards the U.S. and Israel – Iran’s #1 and #2 enemies – the Large and Little Satans!
They may have changed the message, the messengers, and the means of transmission in this “digital age,” but has the Obama Administration impacted the World for the better? Is the “Ship of State” sturdier and better prepared to face the rest of this century, or the next decade?