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Barack Obama was one of the most polarizing presidents of the modern era. To the right, he was a weak, feckless leader who led from behind and went on apology tours while failing to crack down on radical Islamic terrorism and “illegal immigrants.” To his critics on the left, he was the deporter in chief, the drone president, bombing villages in Pakistan, assassinating Americans without trial in Yemen, arming rebels in Syria, launching a military intervention in Libya without congressional approval. While Obama did embrace the U.S. empire — killing civilians and selling weapons to awful regimes — he also pulled some of the biggest diplomatic breakthroughs of our time, negotiating the Iran nuclear deal, getting the U.S. to sign on to the Paris climate accord, and reopening ties with Cuba. With Trump now in office, is it time to recognize that Obama wasn’t as bad as we thought, or did Obama’s excesses, whether in the Middle East or at the Mexico border, lead the way to Trump’s? Ben Rhodes, who was Obama’s foreign policy speechwriter and later rose to become his deputy national security adviser, joins Mehdi Hasan to discuss Obama’s legacy and whether it has seeped into the Trump administration.
Ben Rhodes: You know, we did what we could to prohibit torture, including working to legislate that change. For Barack Obama, who is coming into office, the disruption of taking on a prosecution of U.S. officials would’ve been a consuming thing for him to do.
Mehdi Hasan: Welcome to Deconstructed. I’m Mehdi Hasan.
Barack Obama was one of the most polarizing presidents of the modern era, and his foreign policy was particularly polarizing. To liberals the world over, he was like Neo from the Matrix, he was The One; the messiah who came to fix the world order after the chaos and the crimes that came before him, who reclaimed America from the Bush machine. Obama even won a Nobel Peace Prize in his first year in office, some would say, simply for not being George W. Bush.
President Barack Obama: Clear eyed, we can understand there will be war and still strive for peace. We can do that, for that is the story of human progress.
MH: To his right-wing critics, though, Obama was a weak, feckless leader, who led from behind, and went on apology tours, while failing to crack down on radical Islamic terrorism or quote-unquote illegal immigrants.
President Donald J. Trump: Thousands of Americans would be alive today if not for open border policies of Obama and Clinton.
Sean Hannity: Well, the appeaser-in-chief, he gave Iran $150 billion. Here’s Obama surrendering to the radical mullahs.
MH: But to his critics on the left, he was the drone president, bombing villages in Pakistan, assassinating Americans without trial in Yemen, arming rebels in Syria, launching a military intervention in Libya without Congressional approval. He was also to them, of course, the Deporter-in-Chief. His immigration crackdowns, in many ways, opened the doors to today’s horror show at the border under Donald Trump.
Jorge Ramos: President Obama deported 2.5 million immigrants, he destroyed thousands of families. No other president has done something like that.
MH: Now, you might not be surprised to hear that I happen to think the right-wing critique of Obama’s foreign policy is a lot of BS, but I also happen to think that the left-wing critique of him can sometimes be a little simplistic. Because there’s the Obama who, yes, embraced U.S. Empire, killed a lot of civilians and sold weapons to some awful regimes, as every U.S. president does. But there’s also the Obama who pulled off the biggest diplomatic breakthrough of our time, the Iran nuclear deal; who managed to get the U.S. to sign up to the Paris Climate Accords; who re-opened ties with Cuba — all in the face of blind, Republican opposition.
So my question today is: With Donald Trump now in office, is it time to recognize Obama maybe wasn’t as bad as we all thought — you know, everything’s relative in life — or is it, in fact time, for liberals to have a proper reckoning with Obama’s foreign policy legacy, to recognize that Obama’s excesses, whether in the Middle East or at the Mexico border, led the way to Trump’s?
MH: My guest today was at President Obama’s side every step of the way over the course of those two terms in office. Ben Rhodes joined the Obama election campaign in 2007 as a foreign-policy speechwriter, when he was just 29, and rose to become a deputy national-security adviser at the White House, who was so intellectually and ideologically close to his boss that he was often described as having a mind-meld with Obama.
Ben, who currently works at the Obama Foundation, has written a new book, “The World as It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House.” And earlier this week I interviewed him about Obama’s rather contentious foreign policy record. I began by asking him about the Iran nuclear deal that he helped negotiate and whether it was frustrating for him to see Donald Trump tearing up that deal while going off to Singapore to hug and embrace Kim Jong Un and getting nothing comparable to the Iran deal in return.
Ben Rhodes: Well, I have to say, it could make you crazy, if you thought about it. I mean, as I detail in the book, it actually took really seven years to get all the way to the Iran deal, because it years of sanctions, followed by years of pain-staking diplomacy, followed by a Herculean effort to ensure that Congress didn’t blow up the deal, to put in place, as you said, really the most stringent inspections and verification regime that had ever been negotiated in a deal like that.
And then, Trump, who, near as I could tell, could not even tell you what was in the Iran deal — he just like to say how bad it was — goes to Singapore, gets a several-hundred word statement that has just a reaffirmation from North Korea of the same promise they’ve broken in the past to denuclearize: no inspections, no verification, no timeline. And he gives away a bunch of stuff, including military exercises with South Korea, and then declares himself the hero and is awarding himself the Nobel Prize. So, there’s kind of no end to the hypocrisy in addition to the recklessness.
MH: Do you believe now, that given what Trump has done with the nuclear deal, given the likes of John Bolton working down the corridor from him, that we’re now on a path to war with Iran?
BR: Well, I certainly think it’s far more likely. You know, there’s an element of the dog catching the car, in that they’ve been railing against the Iran deal for years, but it’s not clear to me that they know what to do now that Trump has scrapped it.
What I fear is going to happen, Mehdi, is that there will be an unraveling of the deal. The Iranians as they don’t receive the benefits that they thought they would get from the deal, because the United States isn’t in it, start testing the boundaries, start perhaps restarting elements of the nuclear program. There’s all kinds of flash points in that region where we could find ourselves quickly on the road to conflict.
MH: I remember, Ben, when I last interviewed you for my Al Jazeera TV show “Up Front” back in the fall of 2015, back in the White House, I grilled you quite hard —
MH: — on Syria policy, on drone strikes and various other issues on foreign policy which I hope we have time to get back into today, later today, with the benefit of hindsight.
But just one thing that stood out to me was not something you said on air, but after the interview was over, we were chatting, and I don’t know if you remember this, and you said to me, and I quote, “You’ll miss us when we’re gone.”
MH: And you were referring, at that time, to the prospect of a hawkish Hillary Clinton succeeding Barack Obama — that was the assumption, of course, from all of us. Of course it turned out to be even more hawkish, more belligerent — Donald Trump, a man who shouldn’t be allowed near an air rifle, let alone a nuclear weapon.
MH: So, look, I’ll be honest. Let me put my cards on the table. I was very critical of Barack Obama for much of his presidency, on foreign policy.
BR: Yes you were. Yeah.
MH: But right now, 2018, a year and a half into Trump, I do miss Obama. You were right! I do miss him. Or at least, let me qualify —
BR: I wish that wasn’t the case, Mehdi. For the greater good, I wish —
MH: I wish it wasn’t the case as well. But let me qualify: I miss the Obama of the Iran deal, I miss the Obama of the Cuba reopening, I miss the Obama of the Paris climate change agreement, that Obama.
MH: Let’s turn to the stuff I don’t miss about Obama, if you don’t mind. Gina Haspel was recently confirmed, very controversially, as Trump’s director of the CIA, despite having been in charge of a CIA black site at which torture was allegedly carried out, and despite destroying taped evidence of that torture. The vast majority of Senate Democrats voted against here; you said on Twitter that her nomination turned into a referendum on a dark chapter of our history that should be over. But it’s not over, Ben, because your administration, your president, Barack Obama, refused to prosecute CIA torturers, decided to look forward not back when you came to office in 2009.
Given Gina Haspel is director of the CIA today, as a direct result of that decision by your administration, do you have any regrets about how you handled that situation and how you handled the torturers?
BR: I do have some regrets, which I’ll get to in a second. I hope the book shows kind of the complexity of the presidency. You know, he’s sitting there, he’s looking at over the abyss of the Great Depression and the disruption of taking on a prosecution of U.S. officials, sorting out who is in that bucket and who isn’t, would have been a consuming thing for him to do and really something that could have broken apart essentially, you know, the connective tissue of the president to his own agencies.
You know, we did what we could to prohibit torture, including working to to legislate that change. And, you know, you have in Donald Trump a president who takes a very different view; to me, that shows that elections have consequences.
MH: But he’s able to take that view, Ben, because you didn’t prosecute the people who did it. Or just fire them all —
BR: I don’t think so, Mehdi —
MH: — Gina Haspel stayed on at the CIA, on your watch. It’s not like you fired her.
BR: The thing, Mehdi, is like, even if we had fired her and prosecuted people, Donald Trump would have still been elected president and could still take those positions, right? So, in democracies —
MH: Maybe he’d be more reluctant if people were behind bars.
BR: Eh, I don’t think so.
MH: Let me put this to you. OK, let me put this to you, Ben. You didn’t prosecute the torturers, you didn’t prosecute the bankers, you failed to stop Israel from building illegal settlements and you hired a bunch of people who supported the Iraq War to run your foreign policy. Even if you don’t agree with them, do you understand at least — do you understand at least — why so many on the left think you guys were so timid? You missed so many opportunities to really make a proper break with the past in 2009 and 2010 and beyond.
BR: I understand that. I do think that in those early years we took a more cautious and conventional approach to foreign policy. Again, I do think some of that was guided by the fact that the economic situation we found was so overwhelming that President Obama felt like he had to start there, and that it was going to be hard for him in that first year to dedicate the type of focus to some of these foreign policy issues that he got to later in his administration, as he’s essentially trying to prevent the global economy from collapsing.
MH: Here’s what I don’t get, Ben. Barack Obama clearly wasn’t a fan, personally, of Benjamin Netanyahu or of the Saudi royal family and you’ve been very critical of Israel and Saudi since leaving office, and even a little bit while in office.
MH: And yet, when you look objectively at the record of your administration, you guys were ludicrously pro-Israeli and pro-Saudi, when push came to shove, when Netanyahu was bombing Gaza, you resupplied them with ammunition in the middle of the bombing campaign. When Saudi started bombing Yemen in 2015, you helped them do it with fuel, with arms, with intel, with diplomatic protection at the U.N.; today Yemen is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis — that started on your watch, not Donald Trump’s.
BR: Well, take both of those.
On Israel, look, I mean there is a baseline of support that the United States is always going to provide to Israel. And on Iran, I’d say Mehdi, we have the scars — and I personally have the scars — to prove that we weren’t afraid to take a position contrary to Prime Minister Netanyahu and Iran.
MH: Definitely on Iran, you took on the Israelis. But Gaza? When 500 kids were killed in the summer of 2014? I don’t remember you having any scars on your back then.
BR: Well, where I feel like we got caught in between, and I tell this story, several examples of it, in the book, was on the peace process with the Palestinians where I did feel like we fell into a trap several times where we were doing just enough to cause a rift with Prime Minister Netanyahu, but not enough to advance the ball. And, you know, we didn’t put forward a peace plan at the beginning of the administration; I think, in retrospect, that would have been a good thing to do. We kind of spent a lot of time in a peace process in 2011 and ’12 and ’13 that was clearly going nowhere, in part because you didn’t have any political will from the Israeli government.
All that said, I don’t know that there was some lever we could have pulled to impose a peace. Ultimately —
MH: But you could have stopped in the summer of — eventually you did stop them in the summer of 2014. You could’ve done it earlier, and you didn’t have to give them ammo in the middle of that war, as they bombed Palestinian hospitals, schools, ambulances.
BR: Well we — we spent a lot of time trying to bring about ceasefires and to end those conflicts. I think this is an issue, Mehdi, when I think back on it, where you know we were pursuing a certain approach of trying to restrain them but trying to work with them, thinking that working with them could allow us to better shape what they were doing in Yemen and get this into a political process. And it’s the kind of thing that, you know, if we did know that Donald Trump was going to be president and there wouldn’t be some continuity in that approach that, you know, I think in retrospect we should have been more restrictive in supporting what they were doing in Yemen. So that’s an example of a case where the dramatic shift in the orientation of the Trump administration makes me look back differently.
You know, if there had been some continuity with a Clinton administration, I think you would have seen continued efforts to promote a political resolution and perhaps to restrain the Saudi efforts.
MH: Do you regret the fact that Obama offered Saudi Arabia, according to one study, more than $115 billion in weapons and military training, more than any other U.S. administration in history? Do you regret that?
BR: You know, I think that our approach, you know which was very visible for everybody to see, especially in the last two or three years, was to go to the Saudis and the other GCC countries and try to get them to reorient some of their approach to their defense away from even the big-ticket hardware that they like to purchase, away from the kind of air campaign that you saw in Yemen, and say to them, “Look, if you have concerns about certain threats from Iran and ISIS that are asymmetric,” right, like interdicting weapons shipments, like cyber-security, like missile defense, “you should focus your defense procurement on those capabilities.”
So, look they are partners the United States. We do have shared threats with terrorist groups and, in some cases, Iranian actions in the region. So I don’t regret that, you know, we were trying I think to get them to pursue a different approach to how they thought about their security then what we’re seeing in Yemen. What I can tell you also, Mehdi, is that like all the things that we’ve seen happen, the escalation in the war in Yemen, the blockade on Qatar, the strange episode with the Lebanese prime minister, you know we spent a lot of effort to try to restrain those types of — you know, the origins of those actions we could see in our administration and we worked hard diplomatically to prevent this from happening.
I think we’re seeing under Trump what happens when, essentially, there’s no constraints whatsoever.
MH: Hillary Clinton famously criticized you and your boss for not having a grand organizing principle for foreign policy. She said, “‘Don’t do stupid shit’ is not an organizing principle.”
Now, personally, I happen to be with you and your boss on this. I happen to think “don’t do stupid shit is a pretty good rule of thumb for U.S. foreign policy. So, given that, let’s talk about what you think the stupidest shit was that you were administration did. Was it Libya, which Obama publicly called his worst mistake and privately called a shitshow? Or was it Syria, as you seem to suggest in your book, in an extract from your book that got a lot of attention in the Atlantic Magazine recently?
BR: [Sighs.] Well actually, you know, first of all, I think it is a good rule of thumb. And it’s not the be-all, end-all; that’s the foundation, right, that you start from? And then you try, on top of that, you have Iran, Cuba, Paris where we’re doing things affirmatively.
It’s interesting, Mehdi, when I look back on it — it’s something you and I used to talk about: I wish we had done more to, frankly, bring to an end the war in Afghanistan and obviously some of the associated counterterrorism efforts.
MH: That’s a very good point.
BR: Put it this way: The broad direction of the United States being in a kind of an open-ended, permanent state of war, I wish we had done more to change that.
Now, obviously in Iraq and Syria, you know, ISIS did demand a military action. But in Afghanistan, you know, we’re 15 years in, I don’t think people can articulate why we’re still there. People can warn about all kinds of scenarios if we leave, but all of those scenarios are taking place with us there. And I think it raises the question of whether or not America is getting ourselves into wars without any clear idea of what we’re trying to achieve or how they will end.
MH: But Ben, wouldn’t it have helped, and people talk about your mind-meld with Obama, when you speak, you’re often reflecting some of Obama’s views, and I encourage people to read the book if they want to get inside of Obama, and not just your views, before Obama’s own memoir comes out. But what I don’t get — I hear you saying this and I’m kind of nodding in agreement, and I used to nod when I’d see you being interviewed in the White House — wouldn’t have helped to end this open-ended military posture of the U.S. if Obama had not filled his administration with card-carrying hawks from the get-go? Hillary Clinton, Rahm Emanuel, Leon Panetta, Susan Rice, the list goes on — all very bright people, but all people who quite like the idea of America being involved in lots of conflicts.
BR: Well, you know, I describe in the book the Afghan review in 2009, I think was a more important event than, you know, people probably I think now in that, you know, that was a pretty extraordinary process where essentially they came to him with one option, to surge in an open-ended way, 40,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan with no timeline to bring them down. And despite months of meetings, you know, I detail whatever Obama did to try to refine the objectives, the recommendation was the same. And what he ended up doing was imposing a timeline on the surge. But, in fact, you know, just the fact of the surge itself would make it very hard for us to, by the end of administration, fully extricate ourselves from Afghanistan.
And I do think that there was a mindset that drove that process that was out of step with what President Obama was looking for. And the interesting thing is that going forward he was much more vigilant in working to try to constrain that type of open-ended escalation and the options that came to him, and, of course, he got charged with micromanaging the military relentlessly.
MH: But Ben, here’s what I don’t get, if you’re saying this about Afghanistan and prolonged conflict, all of which I don’t disagree with what you’re saying. How do you, then, explain Syria? Because you’ve been criticized a lot. I’ve been listening to your interviews on the book tour; you talk about in the book about how you were criticized for not doing enough on Syria. I remember being an event in D.C. a couple years ago where Syrian opposition members were berating you for not doing enough at an event, and you often were the public face who came out and defended Obama. I want to come to the other direction and say: Did you intervene too much in Syria? Because the CIA spent hundreds of millions of dollars funding and arming anti-Assad rebels, a lot of those arms, as you know, ended up in the hands of jihadist groups, some even in the hands of ISIS. Your critics would say you exacerbated that proxy war in Syria; you prolonged the conflict in Syria; you ended up bolstering jihadists.
BR: Well, what I try to do in the book is, you know, essentially raise — all the second guessing on Syria tends to be not what you expressed, Mehdi, but the notion that we should’ve taken military action.
BR: What I do in the book is I try to look back at 2011 and 2012, was there a diplomatic window that we missed or that we, in some ways, escalated its closure by pivoting to the call for Assad to go — which obviously I believe should happen, I believe Assad has been a terrible leader for Syria and has brutalized his people — but, you know, was there a diplomatic initiative that could have been taken to try to avert or at least minimize the extent of the civil war. Because, you know, what ended up happening essentially there is, you know, we were probably too optimistic that, you know, after Mubarak went and Ben Ali and eventually Saleh and Gaddafi, that you would have a situation where Assad would go. And, you know, not factoring in enough the assistance he was going to get from Russia and Iran, combined with his own nihilism, and how that could lead him to survive. So I do look back at that potentially missed diplomatic opportunity.
On the support of the opposition, you know, I don’t know that I would give us that much agency. There are a lot of people putting arms into Syria, funding all sorts of —
MH: Oh, come on, but you were coordinating a lot of their arms. You know, the U.S. was heavily involved in that war with the Saudis and the Qataris and the Turks.
BR: Well, I was going to say: Turkey, Qatar, Saudi.
MH: You were in there as well.
BR: Yeah, but, the fact of the matter is that once it kind of devolved into kind of a sectarian-based civil war with different sides fighting for their perceived survival, I think we, the ability to bring that type of situation to close, and part of what I wrestled with in the book is the limits of our ability to pull a lever and make killing like that stop once it’s underway.
So that’s why I still look to that initial opening window. I also describe, there was a slight absurdity in the fact that we were debating options to provide military support to the opposition at the same time that we were deciding to designate al-Nusra, a big chunk of that opposition, as a terrorist organization. So there was kind of a schizophrenia that’s inherent in a lot of U.S. foreign policy that came to a head in Syria.
MH: That’s a very good word, especially to describe Syria policy. We’re almost out of time. I just want to do, I do want to ask you this: You mentioned earlier, if we’d known Trump was coming next, we maybe would have modified our policy on Saudi or on Yemen or whatever. And I think that would apply to a lot of areas, if you’d known Trump was coming next.
What do you say to those of your critics who say you left behind this expanded, secretive, unaccountable executive branch, an entire architecture of NSA surveillance, assassination programs, drone programs, not to mention the precedent of launching wars without congressional approval, like Libya? You left that behind for Donald Trump to inherit, to use, to abuse; you basically left behind a loaded gun for Donald Trump to start firing.
BR: Yeah, but the problem with that, Mehdi, is that Congress was never, ever going to take any ownership of that stuff. We tried desperately just to get an AUMF, an authorization to use force, on ISIS. If we had a Congress that we possibly could have worked with, we certainly would have, you know, tried to amend the existing AUMF, which dates back to post-9/11.
MH: I’m not defending Congress, but, you know, Congress didn’t force you to bring in new innovations like executing an American citizen via drone strike, which no previous president had done, which now Donald Trump has the power to do.
BR: Yeah, but I think people should understand, though, that Congress provides the architecture of all these authorities. You know, they date back to post-9/11, they date back to the Bush administration: the Patriot Act, the Authorization [for] Use [of] Military Force. So essentially, even if we had, you know, terminated a lot of the things.
MH: But it was expanded on your watch, Ben. It’s not about terminating, not terminating. Obama expanded it. I get why, I understand the reasoning, we don’t have time to get into it, you know. You didn’t want to invade and occupy countries, this was a lighter military foot, I get all of that. But the point is it was expanded on his watch, and now you have Donald Trump with all those powers. Surely that must scare the crap out of you.
BR: Well, certainly, Donald Trump with any kind of power scares me. But it was expanded and contracted. I mean, we had contracted it by the end.
But I do think, you know, the challenges in our foreign policy, again, some of the things that you’re uncomfortable with and some of your listeners, I’m sure, you know one person, even the president of the United States can’t alter that direction. Again, like, you know, the congressional incentives — we couldn’t close Gitmo, I mean, despite our efforts. There’s literally nothing we could do because Congress wouldn’t let us do it. So some of these things — the authorities given to a president, to wage war, to use tools like drones, to conduct surveillance — those authorities we’re going to be there no matter what Barack Obama did because that’s the orientation of Congress. And, ultimately, you know, changing the direction of American foreign policy, even if you think we could have done more, to truly address some of those issues, you know, there’s going to have to be a shift in how Congress approaches them.
MH: Ben Rhodes, thanks for taking time out and coming on the show to talk about Obama’s record. I appreciate you coming in, taking some of these more critical questions. Good luck with the book tour.
BR: Thanks, Mehdi.
MH: That was Ben Rhodes, former top Obama adviser and author of the new book, “The World as It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House.”
And that’s our show! Deconstructed will be back next week for the last show of the season before our summer break — much earned —and we’ll be keeping a close eye on the U.S. Supreme Court, which is expected to deliver its ruling on Donald Trump’s Muslim Ban any day now.
Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept, and is distributed by Panoply.
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