Commentary: In defense of Ben Rhodes, Obama's foreign policy supremo

Until earlier this month, relatively few people outside the U.S. foreign policy community knew the name Ben Rhodes. I suspect he wishes that were still the case.

U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes speaks about Obama's upcoming visit to Cuba at the White House in Washington February 18, 2016 REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Washington is packed with highly educated and experienced foreign policy specialists, many of whom spend much of their time trying to demonstrate just how insightful and well-connected they are. And many of them, it is now clear, deeply resent the Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications.

That’s not particularly surprising. The 38-year-old Rhodes, who first joined then-Senator Obama in 2007 as a speechwriter, has almost none of the conventional background of a foreign policy specialist. Throughout the administration, however, he has been probably the most significant individual when it comes to determining how the White House deals with the rest of the world. He might not be as big a name as Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Vice President Joe Biden or National Security Advisor Susan Rice. But he has, Washington insiders say, been at least as influential.

Particularly on the most contentious issues of the day -- the Iran deal, Syria, the wider Arab Spring -- he has been central to both shaping policies and even more crucially, communicating them. He is the key White House contact and gatekeeper for many journalists, politicians and senior diplomats. When Obama speaks on these issues -- for example, in his “New Beginning” speech in Cairo shortly after taking office-- the words are the product of long sessions with Rhodes.

Now, however, it seems to be open season on the still relatively young adviser. What might have been originally intended to be a remarkably positive profile piece in the New York Times seems to have opened the floodgates for an unprecedented degree of vitriol.

Scenting blood, three Republican senators demanded he be fired. Others want to testify to foreign affairs oversight committees on the Hill, particularly over the suggestions in the article that he deliberately oversold the Iran nuclear deal.

Meanwhile, on old, new and social media, an ever-growing number of often respected foreign policy commentators are making it clear they never liked him anyway -- and that he represents everything else they don’t like about the Obama administration. At the same time, another parallel debate has swirled online about the journalistic merits of the profile and its author David Samuels.

Many of these criticisms are at least partly justified. The piece is very long and very, very self referential. Samuels and Rhodes are both very bright, but also very privileged men. Particularly in talking down others in Washington, they give the distinct impression they see themselves as rather brighter than everyone else.

Both are clearly fascinated by storytelling and narrative. Rhodes has a postgraduate degree in writing from New York University -- he only switched to foreign policy after the attacks of 9/11. Samuels mentions that he had recently spent time “working in Hollywood.” Much of the discussion is about messaging, placing arguments and shaping the media and political landscape.

Judging by the backlash the two of them produced, it’s possible they don’t understand it quite as well as they thought.

Rhodes was openly disparaging of the majority of the journalists and pundits he interacts with -- he describes the Washington foreign policy community as “the blob.” Many of them, he said, had little real world experience.

These are not unreasonable criticisms. What they miss, though, is that one could say exactly the same thing about Rhodes and many others in the administration.

When Obama entered the White House in 2009, he brought along a tight-knit group of young and ambitious campaign workers. The closest circle had already been with him for several years -- and ferociously guarded their access.

I’ve never met Rhodes -- in the Reuters bureau in Washington, as in many other news organizations, access to key individuals is largely restricted to the handful of reporters who cover their specific department or building. But there seems much about him that is admirable. At the very least, he is someone who has made it to the top -- and some of the criticism clearly smacks of jealousy.

At the same time, however, the Rhodes saga does seem to support one of the most widespread criticisms of Obama’s immediate circle. Many of them, like Rhodes, have been in the “Obama bubble” since their 20s. They worked hard to get where they are, but they were also very lucky. The awkward truth is that rising that high that fast doesn’t leave a lot of time for useful wider experience.

Whether or not these individuals were as mediocre as some critics claim is beside the point. Almost anyone in such circumstances would’ve found themselves quickly out of their depth.

Obviously, one learns a lot on the job. Still, Rhodes has essentially spent much the last eight years in a windowless basement office in the White House. He has accompanied Obama on many trips, of course -- but they offer few if any chances to escape the security-heavy bubble of Air Force One, the presidential motorcade and five-star hotels.

What is clear is that some of those in the White House -- possibly including the president himself -- have not always welcomed outside criticism or advice. Rhodes, who feels a “mind meld” with Obama, seems to epitomize that insularity.

This isn’t new. Obama and his top commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, had a notoriously distant relationship, one which imploded after a profile in Rolling Stone magazine. Relations with military top brass remain somewhat limited – some of America’s most respected generals, officials and others say, have never met the president.

Too much disloyalty and profound differences are clearly a problem. A little pushback, however, can be productive -- during World War Two, Winston Churchill deliberately promoted some of those willing to fight against his ideas. America needs its best and brightest talking openly and often.

It’s easy to list the areas in which the administration’s foreign policy could have gone better. Buoyed in part by the euphoria of Obama’s own historic victory, many in the administration probably became too optimistic about the 2011 “Arab Spring.” In Syria in particular, they tacitly encouraged uprisings without any intention of following through with serious military support.

Relying so heavily on a relatively inexperienced 38-year-old is likely not the best model for future presidents to follow. But we don’t know whether things would have turned out any differently -- or better -- if someone else had been in charge. What is clear is that those in the Obama administration, Rhodes in particular, have worked remarkably hard to achieve what they thought was right.

The next occupants of the West Wing will almost certainly have very different characteristics. Almost without exception, those around Hillary Clinton were with her at the State Department. They made many mistakes, but they also will also have learned from them.

Donald Trump, meanwhile, looks like he would just try and muddle through everything on his own. We might yet come to miss the Rhodes era.