- By Will InbodenWill Inboden is Executive Director of the William P. Clements, Jr. Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas-Austin. He also serves as Associate Professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and Distinguished Scholar at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law.
Saturday’s New York Times ran a front page story about what appears to be a serious internal rift in the Obama national security staff. At first glance, the story might look like a customary puff piece on NSC communications director Ben Rhodes, of the type written by cynical reporters willing to curry favor so as to maintain media access with the notoriously prickly Obama White House. The article portrays Rhodes as one of President Obama’s most influential advisors and ascribes credit to Rhodes for just about every one of the administration’s presumed foreign policy successes (e.g. the Libya intervention, Mubarak’s exit from power, the strategic opening to Burma). By the end of the article one almost expects to read that Rhodes masterminded the Osama bin Laden operation too. It includes glowing testimonials to Rhodes’ policy influence from several current and former Obama administration officials, making clear that Rhodes is more than just a speechwriter.
But noticeably missing from the article are any words of praise for Rhodes from the one person you would expect to weigh in on the piece: his immediate boss, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon. I wonder if this is more than just that Donilon was "too busy to comment" and indicates a serious internal rift on the national security staff. It reads as if Rhodes has gone to the front page of the New York Times to publicly distance himself from his White House’s negligence on Syria. Donilon is strongly associated with the Obama administration’s posture of passivity on Syria and presumably was behind the White House’s denial of recommendations last year by then-Secretary Clinton, Secretary Panetta, Chairman Dempsey, and CIA Director Petraeus to arm the Syrian rebels. For one of Donilon’s deputies like Rhodes to publicly criticize his boss’s policy like this is no small matter. I wonder whether Donilon appreciated seeing the internal rift aired on the front page of the nation’s paper of record.
Of course Donilon is not ultimately responsible for the White House’s failed policy on Syria, President Obama is. The strategic disaster that Syria has become is a product of choices that Obama has made. This makes Rhodes’ public disagreement with the administration all the more significant, since here is an Obama loyalist saying that the president is wrong. The article softens this point by uncritically repeating some White House spin, saying that "administration officials note that Mr. Rhodes is not alone in his frustration over Syria, pointing out that Mr. Obama, too, is searching for an American response that ends the humanitarian tragedy," followed by a hand-wringing quote from White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough. But sifting through this cloying profile, a less flattering portrait emerges of a feuding administration and a failed policy.