Are American national interests in the Middle East better off today than they were over seven years ago when Mr. Obama became President? It depends whether you ask Benjamin Rhodes, President Obama's Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications (a.k.a. Obama's "Tonto" on all things Middle East). According to Rhodes, the world of the Sunni Arabs has collapsed and it's time to move on and disengage from the Middle East. Add Israel to that list. Check.
Mr. Rhodes' simpleton view is an opinion shared by an extremely small cadre of White House staff and those who intentionally or inadvertently drank from Mr. Rhodes firehose. The rest of the world, according to Mr. Rhodes, is just too dumb to know any better.
Mr. Rhodes had plenty of practice writing Middle East fiction to prepare for his career as a budding novelist. After all, he boasts single-handed credit in an extraordinarily revealing New York Times Magazine article on May 8th for intentionally deceiving our allies, members of Congress, journalists, and, ultimately the American people, whom he brags were duped by a White House campaign to market the Iran nuclear agreement under false pretenses. In the process his swaggering revelations have unfairly tarnished the reputations of several highly respected and totally credible journalists.
It is a remarkable amount of unbridled chutzpah. Mr. Rhodes seems to not care one iota about those he harmed in his selfish flights of braggadocio.
One also must wonder, if Mr. Rhodes cared so much for his handiwork and Mr. Obama's legacy, why spill his embarrassing beans now? What could the President gain by having his closest Middle East advisor try to make everyone outside the West Wing out to look like a bunch of fools misled down the primrose path orchestrated by spinmeister Rhodes? Did Mr. Obama really need more ammunition to feed to his Middle East foreign policy critics? It was a disservice to the nation and to Mr. Obama's need to focus on the real world challenges in the region.
Not surprisingly, the NY Times article has kicked up quite the kerfuffle inside the Beltway. After all, even the author of the piece, David Samuels, is in wonderment how a 31 year old speechwriter with zero foreign policy schooling who latched on to the 2008 campaign as a junior speechwriter became Mr. Obama's Secretary of State for the Middle East?
"His (Rhodes') 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!"
That finding is Exhibit A or perhaps B for the average American who puzzles what lies behind the missteps and faltering Middle East policies that Mr. Obama seems constantly having to bail out what he himself created. We now know more why.
Effective foreign policy always/always starts by consulting with a wide range of credible experts attuned to national interests, not speechwriters channeling unbridled pie-in-the-sky prose masquerading as strategic policy, no matter the consequence to national security.
Mr. Obama elected to freeze out the "Blob" (Rhodes' derogatory moniker for the Democratic or Republican foreign policy establishment) time and again and surround himself with "Obama legacy first"; national interest second" national security advisers. They have earned the reputation they deserve, and Mr. Rhodes did little to make his colleagues look good in the bargain.
I, for one, want to thank Mr. Rhodes for partaking with abandon in this expose. He has performed a national service.
So, my quarrel has less to do with his delight resorting to fiction to spin the sale of the Iran nuclear deal. Rather, it has to do with his (and his boss') singular determination to hand the keys to the Middle East to the Ayatollah and "disengage" from the ties that have "tied down" the U.S. in the region -- U.S. interests be damned.
The policy narrative Mr. Rhodes spun in the speeches for Mr. Obama exposes how the missteps-by-missteps to follow that disengagement yellow brick road contributed mightily to the erosion of U.S. national interests.
Step 1, withdraw troops from Iraq and give the good housekeeping seal to then PM Nuri al-Maliki - never mind that Mr. Maliki - an Iranian pawn single-handedly stoked the flames of sectarian war engulfing Iraq.
Step 2, toss overboard Hosni Mubarak of Egypt as the Arab Spring washed across the Nile. Never mind that it would lead to a takeover by the Muslim Brotherhood - Mubarak was seen as a burden in the grand design and Ms. Rice loves democracy -- even if it produces an American and israeli adversary.
Step 3, open up a secret negotiating channel while the notorious Iranian Ahmadinejad was still in power. Never mind that we did not inform our closest allies who were misled to believe that the channel only opened following the election of Mr. Rouhani. Chalk up another hit on American credibility.
Step 4, declare Bashar-al Assad has to go. Never mind when it came to back that declaration up, oops! What red line? After all goes the spin, Assad was prevented from using his chemical weapons. See how that helped the Syrian people?
Step 5. Belittle the threat of ISIS. How inconvenient ISIS became to Mr. Rhodes. ISIS suddenly emerges as an unexpected diversion from the White House master disengagement plan. Mr. Rhodes serves up to Mr. Obama a tidy refrain that ISIS is just a jayvee squad. Dollop up bite-sized anti-ISIS efforts to keep the critics at bay. Four years after ISIS seized Raqqa and Mosul and slaughtered hundreds of thousands, the American people are vesting their fear in a Donald Trump to do the job Mr. Obama pledged to lead from the front - but that would run up against the master plan.
Step 6, "lead from behind" in Libya (Mr. Rhodes' own words), and after his Qadaffi's demise, bellow a hearty "salaam aleikum" to the Libyan people. After all, ensuring Libya would not become a failed state rampant with ISIS operatives was not part of the White House master Middle East disengagement game plan.
Step 7, the piece de resistance, an Iran nuclear agreement that greased the skids for that U.S. -Iran transition away from Sunnis states. Never mind that it was not accompanied by a regional strategy to prevent Iran and Russia from running roughshod over our vital interests in the region and unleash a torrent of Iranian chicanery in Yemen, missile testing, and a surge of support for Hamas and Hezbollah.
Step 8, dispatch the all-essential U.S. - Israeli alliance into a death spiral fueled by personal vendettas. It is not lost that Mr. Rhodes that was the likely source of most of the insults against Mr. Netanyahu from "senior White House officials (yes, Mr. Netanyahu instigated much of this). So much for thoughtful, mature national security policy. As the New York Times article asserted, Mr. Rhodes considered U.S. ties to Israel an impediment to his grand disengagement designs.
When all of this chicanery is measured against current Administration policy toward Sunni Arab states and Israel, White House policy amounts to leaving behind torrents of weapons for Israel and Arab states to defend themselves against ISIS and Iran, with the U.S. exiting stage left. It smacks of leaving the leftover pot roast hoping it's is enough to keep the beggars at bay.
Admittedly, it is unfair to lay at Mr. Rhodes' doorstep all that Mr. Obama has wrought upon himself. The buck ultimately stops at the Oval Office.
I, too, share President Obama's and Mr. Rhodes' desire to avoid trapping the U.S. in yet another ground war in the Middle East. I have been against more U.S. ground forces anywhere in the region. But fundamentally, we have really one major strategic interest compelling active U.S. engagement - defeating ISIS. Yet neither gentleman has been willing to entertain even one credible idea from the "Blob" to enable the development of a strategic vision and accompanying policy to prevent Middle East events from stealing the dream. In Mr. Rhodes' opinion, we are all just morons and it is only he and his cadre of true believers who are smart enough to see over the horizon.
How ironic then that on Mr. Rhodes' watch the U.S. is now deeply enmeshed in Yemen for no good strategic reason other than placating the Saudis in their proxy war against Iran. That there are over 5,000 American military "boots on the ground" in Iraq and Syria, and the number inevitably is going to shoot up even though White House policy is to toss the hot potato to the next president. Or that the White House is being dragged into an ISIS-stoked Libyan civil war - which the President acknowledged to Jeffrey Goldberg in the April 2016 edition of The Atlantic was his foremost foreign policy failure. Why? Because aiding Libya after Qadaffi's fall did not fit into the Obama-Rhodes master Middle East disengagement plan. And I have not even referenced the dangerous situation in Afghanistan.
All of this amounts, as Kori Shake wrote in Defense One on March 14, 2015, to "strategic incoherence" - a disconnect between the actual threat and the means Mr. Obama was willing to commit, in the cause of Rhodes' vision - to counter it.
The American people deserve a Middle East policy that is transparent, understood, and under-girded by an over-arching policy to contain the threat to our homeland from terrorism. America's valiant sons and daughters have been lost and injured in wars that defy the purpose for which they volunteered to serve and those sacrifices deserve a better response and a better policy.
We have very limited national security interests in the Middle East and it is time they be spelled out. The convulsions ripping artificial colonial borders apart, stoking a once in a millennium Sunni-Shiite theological war, and destroying the fabric of Arab societies are titanic challenges that are not ours to resolve. But we simply cannot turn our back on the limited vital interests we have there merely to appease a naïve dream which leaves behind a greater burden for subsequent Administrations to shoulder.
Mr. Rhodes had a dream, but the American people are inheriting a nightmare.