Ben Rhodes on Where American Foreign Policy Went Wrong
Yascha Mounk and Ben Rhodes discuss the lessons of (non)intervention in the Middle East.
Ben Rhodes is a writer and the former Deputy National Security Advisor under President Barack Obama. His latest book is After the Fall: The Rise of Authoritarianism in the World We've Made.
In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Ben Rhodes discuss the record of Barack Obama’s foreign policy; what America should do about the Middle East, Russia, and China; and how (not) to advance democratic values around the world.
This conversation was recorded on November 1st, 2022. The transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Yascha Mounk: You are, fairly or unfairly, most famous for one four letter word: the “blob.”
What was the blob, in the context of the early years of the Obama administration? What was the state of the foreign policy establishment in the United States in 2008, and what did you feel was wrong with it?
Ben Rhodes: I moved to Washington in 2002 to be involved in American foreign policy, and that was very much the peak of the post-9/11 mentality. As a young person, a 24/25 year old working at a think tank, I watched this herd mentality as people rushed to support the war in Iraq. Some people held the very earnest view that it was the right thing to do. But I also noticed some people who just didn't want to be left off the train. I resisted that for a while. But I got worn down. I remember when Colin Powell gave his presentation at the UN, I thought to myself, “Well, I'm not sure about this war. But if all these people are saying, ‘This is what we absolutely must do,’ they must know something I don't.” My formative years taught me that maybe the people in charge don't know something that I don't.
Obama had basically differentiated himself as a politician because of his opposition to the war in Iraq. The 2008 primary with Hillary was very much about foreign policy, and the core contrast that Obama drew with Hillary was her support for the war in Iraq versus his opposition.
The “blob” was later in the Obama administration. I was referring to a similar kind of groupthink that overstated the capacity of the United States to shape events inside of other countries, particularly in the Middle East; it was often reflexively interventionist, without necessarily considering the consequences of interventions. And frankly, I was frustrated that it was harder to build support for a diplomatic agreement with Iran than it was to take our country to war in Iraq. Groupthink, interventionism, the failure to reckon with the lessons of Iraq—that's kind of what I was talking about. Some people will say that I was criticizing the liberal order. No, I'm all for the liberal order. I was criticizing a very particular but predominant post-9/11 strain of American foreign policy.
Mounk: By the time Obama came into office, the lesson that the Iraq war was a mistake had become obvious to many people. But what broader lessons did you think the administration should have taken from it, and what lessons did the administration take from it?
Rhodes: Well, I thought—and continue to think—that it was not just Iraq. It was an enormous mistake to marshal all of American national security policy—really, in some ways, American identity itself—and direct it into this war against terror. America was experiencing a kind of completely unique moment in world history: a moment of dominance of global affairs after the end of the Cold War. And we took all of that power and just directed it at this global war on terrorism, which could encompass everything from the war in Iraq to opening up the prison in Guantanamo to the Patriot Act, to increasing governmental powers and surveillance, to framing an us-versus-them view of counterterrorism. All this momentum was unleashed after 9/11. When Obama came in, it was still driving American foreign policy. We had 180,000 troops in Iraq and Afghanistan—we were just off the surge in Iraq—and people were already chomping at the bit to do a surge in Afghanistan. And we were creeping into places like Yemen and Somalia, militarily.
In the early days of the Obama administration, the goal was, “How do we unwind this?” You can't just hit a button and stop all these wars—much to the dissatisfaction, I think, of some critics on the left. It's just not feasible to do that. How do we shift the direction of American foreign policy to start bringing troops home, to start deprioritizing terrorism relative to other issues like climate change, or recovering from the global financial crisis? How do you adjust to the fact that America is not as dominant as the blob thinks we are? That last point may be the most important in some ways, and I still think that there's a view from Washington that is kind of frozen in time, in say, 1993—that we can impose our will; we can shape events; we can act with impunity; we can make mistakes without paying the price for those mistakes; we can set a bad example through torture or Guantanamo without thinking that other countries might copy that example. That, to me, was the core tension between Obama and some of the more interventionist blob forces.
Now, I think we succeeded in part. We were able to draw down the war in Iraq. We had this laborious review in Afghanistan, that I think mistakenly led to a bigger surge than was probably necessary. We did prioritize some other issues. I think any foreign policy isn't perfect, and I think Obama was constantly calibrating how much he could wind down the post-9/11 era and lead us into something different while doing so responsibly.
Mounk: I'm interested in what that meant in terms of the policies of the Obama administration. Clearly, as we've seen over and over again, the ability of the United States to shape events around the world is very limited. How do you think the Obama administration performed in Libya and Syria, and what lessons should we take from that?
Rhodes: I was constantly arguing to do more in Syria. Up through that “red line” episode, I was one of the people kind of banging on the table like, “We need to be doing more.” And Obama would constantly push back and say, “Well, then what? We bomb the runways where the planes are taking off, then they rebuild the runways. Then what do we do?” I think what he saw is that there was no way into Syria that didn't get us deeper and deeper in.
Mounk: One of the criticisms that people might make is that you overlearned the lessons of Iraq. But it sounds like Obama actually had Vietnam in mind.
Rhodes: It's an interesting question, what he had in mind. The intervention in Libya, for example, was designed at the beginning to protect civilians in a particular place in Benghazi. Qaddafi was announcing publicly that he was gonna go from house to house and massacre people. We could literally see on a map, “here are Qaddafi's forces; they reached the outskirts of this city; if they go in there, there's going to be a real massacre. And we can just stop him where he is and prevent that massacre.” As soon as that intervention happened, however, the logic ran quickly to regime change, because Qaddafi continued to kill other Libyans in other places. And so long as Qaddafi was there, he posed a threat to Libyan civilians—the snowball quickly rolled down the mountain to regime change.
There are interesting counterfactuals. At the time, though, the momentum just overwhelmingly tipped in that direction. I've taken a lot of heat on this issue over the years, because I've tried to defend Obama's thinking. I'm not defending the outcome of the horrific war in Syria. But I think it's easy to look at that situation and say, “Well, if you guys had gone in, you would have saved all of those lives.” What is the evidentiary basis to think that a US military intervention automatically leads to a better outcome, when we have Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya telling us that it doesn't? I don't see what policy would have somehow worked in Syria after not working in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya. But I think it is wrong to equate that with a pessimism about what America can do generally, because fighting wars in the Middle East is not the only tool of American statecraft.
I was very enthusiastic about the second term of Obama foreign policy, more so than the first. A lot of us led efforts to mobilize collective action, whether it's the Ebola response in West Africa, whether it's the Paris Climate Accord, whether it's the Iran nuclear deal, which was a multiyear, multilateral initiative. I led the normalization of relations with Cuba, which helped lead, in part, to an end to the Colombian civil war. I reject the pessimism label entirely. I think that fighting wars in the Middle East has kept us from doing lots of things in the world.
Mounk: That's a nice qualification. But perhaps it's a “local” pessimism, right? It is to say, “There are some situations in which any course of action that the United States might take is going to lead to disaster; but not acting at all, whatever that means, is going to lead to disaster as well.”
Now, in other areas, we might be able to bring about good outcomes. We might be able to normalize relations with Cuba and make progress on climate change. But however you rerun the counterfactual tables, the outcome in Syria is essentially always going to be a huge humanitarian catastrophe.
Rhodes: I have a deep pessimism about war. I just want to be very specific about this. Tell me how often that turns out well? It's kind of shocking to me, when you look back on Vietnam: there’s something called the Vietnam Syndrome, which is that Americans over-learned the lesson of the Vietnam War, and it made them more reticent to get involved in other wars. Why is that a syndrome? That seems like the logic that you would learn from something like Vietnam, and not just Vietnam—it's Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Look at Russia. They're learning that lesson right now themselves.
Now, in Syria, I think you can mount critiques about whether we should have made more limited use of force in response to chemical weapons, just to reinforce the norm. But also, I think people can ask other questions like: Was it wise for the United States under Barack Obama to call for Assad to go as leader; to basically say that there was no world in which he could remain president of Syria? I don't say that because I think Assad should be president of Syria. I would love him to go. I wish he’d left in 2011 when the first protests happened. However, that may have closed a certain window on diplomatic initiatives, ones that might have been unsatisfying, but that could have saved a lot of lives.
I'll give you another example with Iraq. There were all these debates in Washington after it went bad: “Did we not send enough troops? Should we have disbanded the Iraqi army? Did de-Ba’athification make sense?” It almost allowed people to avoid answering the question: “Why did we go in and invade and occupy this country when they hadn't done anything to provoke us in terms of the development of weapons of mass destruction?”
Mounk: I'm sympathetic to the idea that essentially whatever choice the United States makes in these conflicts, it’s going to turn out bad—including the choice to not really make a choice. And of course, the result is frustrating for anybody who's in government, because your choice is always going to be compared with some imagined alternative where everything turns out fine, even if that imagined alternative doesn't exist, or cannot be reached given the agency that the President of United States, powerful as he or she might be, has.
Now, the benefit of hindsight is 20/20, and I'm sure there are things that various actors could have done to slightly improve the outcome. But effectively, there just wasn't a realistic scenario that would have avoided Assad using his bloody war of attrition to eventually run the table?
Rhodes: I don't want to seem like I'm just trying to deny that there could have been somewhat better outcomes. Ironically, when I look back on the whole thing, trying to avoid the civil war through diplomacy—without insisting on Assad leaving—was probably the thing that could have saved the most lives. That diplomacy could have failed too, by the way, because it was kind of all-or-nothing, and not just for people in Syria, but for a lot of other foreign powers that were involved.
To tie it to bigger questions: I do think it says something interesting about the nature of the American national security establishment that there was such a hyperfocus on this region these last twenty years. When we look back historically, the far more consequential trends are climate change, the state of democracy, global inequality. There's something wrong with an establishment that is focused on the wrong things. Even in just hard geopolitical terms, we should have been more focused on China these last twenty years. The focus on a number of countries in the Middle East, I think, is going to look ahistorical and irrational the further we get from it.
I understand why you're pressing me about the outcomes in Syria. But to me, the bigger point is: What is it about our national security enterprise that meant we became so fixated on this one part of the world? And that's why I lose my pessimism. I'm not a dead-ender who thinks America can't do anything good in the world. I'm not reflexively taking on a kind of leftist critique that says we should just stay out of everything. Part of what I'm saying is that we were so overextended in this one part of the world—and Syria would have merely increased that overextension, had we gotten involved—that our capacity to do these other things was greatly reduced. People don't like to think in terms of trade-offs, but there are a limited number of people in the US government and a limited number of resources. If you're focusing on the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and potentially Syria, you are, by definition, not doing other things. I felt the bandwidth free up to some extent in the second Obama term. The shift of priorities to things like climate was hugely important. I'm not saying the Paris Accord solved the climate crisis, but it did build a foundation for solving it. These things have to be seen as connected.
Mounk: Let's shift out of the Middle East. Another big strategic choice was to say that the real long-term strategic rival is China rather than Russia, and that we should attempt a reset with Russia.
It seems to me that, with the benefit of hindsight, Russia has just turned out to be a very disruptive force in the short and medium term, even though it becomes clearer with each passing day that Russia is not as credible a long-term strategic threat to the United States as China. But it seems to me that the Obama administration, along with everybody else in DC, virtually every China scholar, and every journalist in the country, was fundamentally wrong about the trajectory of China. In 2008, people said: “China is a real priority here.” But they meant that we needed to engage with China and build a long-lasting partnership to integrate China into all of these international institutions, so that even though China might not become a democracy, it would be a responsible player in the international liberal order. All of that, given the consolidation of power under Xi Jinping, looks somewhat naive in retrospect.
Would you accept these criticisms?
Rhodes: On China, I guess I would challenge the critique a little bit more than on Russia, which I'll come to in a second. But we didn't incorporate China into the international order. That was long since done. That was already the state of play when we came in. I will accept the premise that we had an engagement-focused policy. There was no way out of the financial crisis in the United States, absent some coordination with China.
But I think that when you look back, we were really trying to shape a containment strategy in Asia. Much to my frustration, I wanted us to call it that more explicitly, but there was this delicate balance regarding how we would describe what we were doing. If you look at the Trans Pacific Partnership, which Trump tore up, and Hillary negotiated and then walked away from—that’s the containment strategy. And, by the way, it wasn't just trade that we were operating on. We were working to integrate ourselves into the East Asian framework of ASEAN, dealing with the Southeast Asian countries. And we were building a military presence. We were doing a lot of the things that have continued under Trump and Biden—we just didn't beat our chest as much about it.
When people look back on this, they will see that we were increasingly trying to draw lines and limits around China, and to build a framework within which to compete with them and confront them if needed. Trump turned that into a bilateral trade war instead of a multilateral strategy. Biden's trying to turn it back into a multilateral strategy, which is harder to do when the US is less reliable. The TPP thing really hurt. You spend seven years negotiating an agreement that requires other countries to change their laws in order to be a part of it. There are consequences to just pulling out of that because of domestic politics here in the US, and I think that’s undermining Biden's capacity to multilateralize his China policy.
Where I'm critical of us is simply on not being more outspoken about the rising threats to democracy within China and around the world. I think the US establishment incorporated a bit of self-censorship in how we talked about China. You'd express concern about some event in Tibet or some detention of an individual dissident—but we weren't mounting a critique of the model they were building. I said in my last book After the Fall: Can anybody look at America's relationship with China, from Tiananmen Square to today—and I'm talking about the relationship between governments, but also between our business communities and cultural sectors—and say that we prioritized, at any given point, democracy, human rights, and values over profit? No way. And that's the message the Chinese took.
On Russia—we were coming in, and the financial crisis had happened, the Russo-Georgian War was already a frozen conflict, and President Dmitry Medvedev was in power. I wasn't the architect of the reset policy. But the idea, I think, was sound in a way. This country has a different leader. We know Putin is still in the background, but let's see what we can get done in this particular window of time. We did a New START treaty. We were resupplying troops in Afghanistan through Russia, which is crazy to think about now. The Iran sanctions that Medvedev joined through the UN helped get Iran to the negotiating table, which led to the nuclear deal. So, there are elements of the reset that I think are still defensible.
Mounk: Where does that leave us today? The United States’ geopolitical position today is, in many ways, weaker than it has been for a few decades. You obviously have an extremely fraught relationship with Russia after its invasion of Ukraine. You have an increasingly fraught relationship with an increasingly authoritarian regime in China.
What does that mean for anybody who's trying to devise a coherent foreign policy strategy for the United States? And more broadly, what does that mean for the future of democratic values?
Rhodes: I think it leads me to believe that American foreign policy needs to overwhelmingly focus on the revitalization of existing democratic space, and the growing alignment of views among existing democracies. There's a democratic recession, and there's an autocratic push that is also, as we all know, reaching into parts of the democratic world.
In terms of foreign policy, we do not share a common view of China with other democracies. We're kind of out there on the China policy. It's quite hawkish. Maybe we can bring along the Australians and the Japanese and the British. There’s some real work that needs to be done to align our views on China, on issues of trade, on what we do in a Taiwan contingency. I think we could be doing similar things regarding tech. We don't have common views with Europe on what kind of norms and standards we want to put around the development of AI. There's a lot of work to do on the climate. In some respects, our climate policy is currently in conflict with Europe's, because they see it as an industrial policy that is favoring American industry. We've had similar complaints about some of their border tax approaches.
Your capacity to make it more attractive for Nigeria or South Africa or post-Bolsonaro Brazil to team up with democracies on some things—that capacity grows when we look like we have our stuff together, and we're launching shared initiatives on things that everybody cares about. If you build it, they will come to be a part of it.
It still isn't hard to find someone who will tell you how it's all over for America, and we just made a complete fucking mess of things with Trump and we tore up agreements. It's true. That has real consequences. Who would sign an agreement with America when you have no idea of what America is going to be in two years?
For all that, nobody else has the network of alliances and military bases we have. Nobody has the dynamic society and culture that we have, as toxic as it seems. Our economy has proven to be strangely resilient relative to some others. Countries can't just turn off America. That's not an option.
Mounk: What would it mean for the United States to project that confidence in this moment? What would it look like for the United States to have a narrative about the case for democratic future that doesn't look like it's just going in a snooty way to harangue people in India and Nigeria and so on about their failings without being self-critical, so that it actually is able to put forth a vision that's going to be attractive to people?
Rhodes: You have to connect your critique to things that people really care about. Just standing up and saying, “We support the freedom of expression and you are wrong to lock up journalists,” is much less effective than, “In our history, journalists have been critical in uncovering abuse, and fighting corruption which screws people. If you want to have less corruption in Nigeria, and you don't want all this money flowing to some kleptocrat crony near the top, you should allow for independent journalism.” You're connecting a value like the freedom of the press to what the public actually cares about, which is they're getting robbed by a bunch of corrupt people—which actually puts more pressure on the government to do it, because it looks like they're suddenly covering up corruption by keeping the journalists in jail.
I think it does a lot of disservice to these values globally when we say, “We are offended by the way you're acting because we care about democratic values.” If you actually believe that democratic values deliver better outcomes, you have to describe why you're making the criticism that you are making. Some of them are just, “You shouldn't put a million people in concentration camps in Xinjiang province.” There are some that are purely moral. But I think America and democracies generally could do more to couch their arguments in a persuasion frame, and not just one that accepts that people know that we're right and they're wrong.
Mounk: How optimistic are you about the next fifteen or twenty years? How optimistic are you about Ukraine being able to win the war against Russia or being able to come to some kind of settlement of war without further escalation? How optimistic are you about the ability of the United States to contain China? How optimistic are you about the ability of the international system to confront major challenges whether it's climate change or global pandemics?
Rhodes: I'm pretty worried about the next few years. To skip ahead, I am optimistic about the fifteen year horizon, for a bunch of reasons. I think people would rather not live like we are all living right now. There are only a few places where people had the chance to opt in to the autocratic model, and those are the people that want to opt out the most. Taiwan could raise its hand any day and get a “one country, two systems” deal and be a part of China. If this Chinese model is so great, why do they not want to do that? Why did the people of Hong Kong clearly not want to do that? Ukraine could have appended itself to the reconstituted Russian Empire, obviously, and avoided a tremendous amount of suffering. They didn't want to do that. So I'm kind of optimistic about what we're learning about human nature, preferring democratic systems that may not be exactly like the US, but that are not like Russia and China. I'm also optimistic that on climate change the world is kind of kicking into gear and taking that seriously.
What I'm pessimistic about is the next few years. I don't know how you can have this degree of turbocharged nationalism in this many places and not have more Ukraines. We are talking at a time when you've got a weakening China, with a slowing economy and zero-COVID1 policy that doesn't make sense, that is more nationalist than ever in terms of their ideology. That, to me, is dangerous, and Taiwan is an obvious flashpoint for that energy.
You obviously have Putin. It's all collapsing around him, but he still has a lot of nuclear weapons. And even if we wake up one day and some stern-faced generals say that Vladimir Putin had an accident last night, I don't necessarily know that that means that the war in Ukraine goes away entirely. Russia is going to be there, and there's going to be some version of a war in Ukraine probably for a while. In Iran, the regime is cracking at the foundation, but there are people who don't want to give up power there. In our own country, I have no idea who is the president of this country in two years. It could be Donald Trump, or it could be kind of a mean-spirited DeSantis type. The worst case scenario is there's a war in Taiwan, there's a war in Ukraine, and there's a war in Iran. That feels kind of like World War III, right? Now, I'm not saying that is going to happen exactly. But this could be a pretty disruptive decade of near-misses, potential conflicts, and economic disruptions from the US and China untangling themselves. I think we're in for a pretty rocky period.
But I am optimistic, actually, that we’ll come out on the other end of that okay, provided that we manage this period as effectively as we can. A lot of foreign policy is just preventing things from being much worse. If you can just keep the pots from boiling over, sometimes that is what gets you to the ten or fifteen year horizon.
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Podcast production by John T. Williams and Brendan Ruberry. Podcast cover image by Joe O’Shea.
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Following nationwide demonstrations, Chinese cities have begun to relax zero-COVID restrictions as of December 4.