Shadow Government

A front-row seat to the Republicans' debate over foreign policy, including their critique of the Biden administration.

Having the President’s Ear and Maybe Hearing Others

I am intrigued by the press coverage of the man responsible for the press coverage of Obama foreign policy: Ben Rhodes. Rhodes’s title, deputy national security advisor for strategic communications and speechwriting, implies a role limited to crafting the administration’s foreign policy message, i.e. presenting the administration’s policies in the best light possible to the ...

NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images
NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images
NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images

I am intrigued by the press coverage of the man responsible for the press coverage of Obama foreign policy: Ben Rhodes. Rhodes's title, deputy national security advisor for strategic communications and speechwriting, implies a role limited to crafting the administration's foreign policy message, i.e. presenting the administration's policies in the best light possible to the (often credulous but sometimes skeptical) press. Most days, Rhodes is quoted delivering the administration's talking points, explaining why President Obama's vision is good, his insights are profound, and any problems or setbacks should not really be blamed on the president. 

This is an honorable line of work and Rhodes is, by all accounts, very good at it.  He has the trust of the president and enjoys the kind of fawning press coverage most press flacks would kill to get for their boss, let alone for themselves. 

Yet, as Will Inboden has noted, when you read between the lines there appears to be more of an interesting backstory going on.

I am intrigued by the press coverage of the man responsible for the press coverage of Obama foreign policy: Ben Rhodes. Rhodes’s title, deputy national security advisor for strategic communications and speechwriting, implies a role limited to crafting the administration’s foreign policy message, i.e. presenting the administration’s policies in the best light possible to the (often credulous but sometimes skeptical) press. Most days, Rhodes is quoted delivering the administration’s talking points, explaining why President Obama’s vision is good, his insights are profound, and any problems or setbacks should not really be blamed on the president. 

This is an honorable line of work and Rhodes is, by all accounts, very good at it.  He has the trust of the president and enjoys the kind of fawning press coverage most press flacks would kill to get for their boss, let alone for themselves. 

Yet, as Will Inboden has noted, when you read between the lines there appears to be more of an interesting backstory going on.

This puff piece on Rhodes describes him as not merely a wordsmith but also a key policy advisor.  Apparently, he was a key advocate for opening up Myanmar — so far, one of the genuine original successes of the Obama foreign policy team. 

More than that, he appears to be a key internal critic.  He apparently opposed the initial hesitancy in Libya and successfully persuaded Obama to topple Qaddafi. He likewise opposed the initial waffling on Egypt and backed the eventual policy of withdrawing support for Mubarak.  He unsuccessfully pressed for a more vigorous policy of confrontation with Assad. 

And, more recently, we learn that he has been an internal critic of the administration’s decision to claim that the military toppling of Morsy does not constitute a coup.

Some Republicans distrust Rhodes for his contributions to the Benghazi scandal — he played a major role in drafting the misleading talking points that then-Ambassador Susan Rice (now Rhodes’s nominal boss at the White House) memorably delivered at the height of the 2012 campaign.  However, if his own press coverage can be believed, Rhodes appears to be an advocate for some of the policy changes that many Republicans have been calling for. 

It is usually not a good thing for the communications and political shops to be driving policymaking quite as prominently as they have in the Obama administration.  But it is interesting to note that, Benghazi aside, Rhodes may well have been an insider voice resonating with important outsider critiques. 

Of course we won’t really know "who advocated for what policy when" until more memoirs are written.  And we won’t know which memoirs to trust until the Obama White House archives are opened years from now, allowing outsiders to sift through the voluminous papers and emails that document internal Administration deliberations. 

But in the meanwhile, what is publicly known leaves me ambivalent.  On the one hand, it is striking to read repeated reports airing how the senior staff member responsible for message discipline has been an internal critic of his president’s policies. On the other hand, given that Rhodes’s critiques seem to mirror the policy criticisms leveled by many outside experts, perhaps we should be glad the White House bubble can be penetrated.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

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