BY NOAH KEATE
Ben Rhodes, author of The World As It Is, pictured with President Barack Obama on Air Force One in 2011.
It was Michael Gove who famously said that people had had enough of experts in the 2016 EU Referendum. That position was ultimately vindicated by the vote for Brexit, which was not the view of most experts. However, the concept of expertise is one that deserves a far greater defence. Though technocracy can lead to the ultimate groupthink and the implementation of policies far removed from most people, individuals with expertise can offer guidance, advice and, ultimately, a high level of understanding and the best way forward.
Enter Ben Rhodes. The Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications under Barack Obama’s entire tenure in office, he also acted as a key speechwriter. When it came to National Security issues, he was the man very much in the room. It was also his responsibility to understand how Obama wanted to frame his ideas, find the heart of his voice in speaking to the American people.
Clearly, a story like that is going to be one full of insight and revelation. Rhodes did just that with the publication in 2018 of ‘The World As It Is: Inside the Obama White House’, a fascinating memoir and political analysis of their eight years in office. Given how much Donald Trump tried to frame his predecessors as failures with little care for America, it’s understandable why Rhodes would want to make sure his own account and ideology had a fair hearing.
Rhodes writes in a moving manner about his idealism towards a better America. From campaigning and working for different politicians to being at the heart of the Obama campaign in 2007-08, it’s obvious that he acts very much, as Richard Nixon once said, ‘in the arena’. Though far easier to speak from the sidelines as a commentator, it’s apparent that his vision for an America built on a strong degree of justice runs through every page of the book.
I found it amazing in the book just how much time an American President spends overseas. Naturally, this will have been impacted by Rhodes focusing on foreign policy, but from the volume of content covered in the book, it seems like there is barely any time whatsoever for focusing on domestic affairs. Even when contemporary commentators call on the decline of America following the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the position of American President is one that remains immensely important.
Being reminded of key geopolitical events over the last ten years was helpful and refreshing for someone who wasn’t interested in politics at the start of Obama’s presidency. Reading about the Arab Spring, it is striking just what help America tried to offer towards individuals protesting in their own countries against the tyrannies of oppressive governments. Indeed, the book comments on this own belief in a better country, much of which did not have a sustainable legacy.
The section I found most gripping related to the search and capture of Osama Bin Laden. Based off a lead, it highlighted the huge importance of confidentiality and the consequences of leaking. If that had been leaked and reported, Bin Laden may have escaped and gone elsewhere. As it happens, the operation was executed almost as smoothly as it could have possibly been done.
Rhodes effectively portrays the gridlock at home and overseas that prevents policies from being implemented quickly. In one sense, this is a good thing. Accountability to ensure that Presidents cannot simply implement any policy they like is the bedrock of a democratic society. However, the level of purely partisan gridlock that aims to be nothing but obstructive is demeaning and highlights the actual lack of power for the President.
This is nothing compared to gridlock on the world stage. Rhodes effectively highlights the difficulty of using intergovernmental organisations like the UN to try and deliver a solution with which everyone can agree. As he makes clear, this is far from easy. Countries have got domestic agendas, differences of ideology and voters to please. It makes me appreciate and celebrate more the fact that any kind of agreement is ever struck, given the widespread disparities that exist.
There is a candour and willingness to speak about the abuse and hardships Rhodes has faced from performing such a high-profile role. Horrific messages, accusations of different motives and a general disbelief in their agenda help to highlight the toll of the role. This comes alongside spending time away from his partner and young children, which invariably has a negative impact.
I felt Rhodes could have been stronger on two counts. Firstly, understanding why people were gravitating towards populist parties who offered simple but false solutions. The campaign and election of Donald Trump is not the main focus of this book, but could have received greater attention. Secondly, offering a reinforced argument defending liberal enlightenment values wouldn’t have gone amiss. Rhodes at points can seem almost dismissive of those who take a different position.
The book does what it says on the tin and works excellently for US politics obsessives. By offering a delve behind the White House door, it provides an effective examination into the steps and effort that go into political decision making, the difficulties of trying to get any legislation through and the impact on one’s personal life. While I do not agree with all of Ben Rhodes’ philosophy, ‘The World As It Is’ gives no doubt that he is trying to do the right thing and is in politics for the correct reasons.
‘The World As It Is’ can be ordered from Waterstones here: https://www.waterstones.com/book/the-world-as-it-is/ben-rhodes/9781784708252
Image - Flickr (U.S. Embassy, Jakarta)