Obama’s ‘Red Line’ Debacle From the Inside
Ex-aide Ben Rhodes’s memoir reveals the White House team as indecisive, irresponsible and self-absorbed, but he portrays it all as a success.
President Barack Obama and former White House aide Ben Rhodes. Photo: Kevin Dietsch/Press Pool/Getty Images, Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press
By James Taranto
June 8, 2018 6:41 p.m. ET
Ben Rhodes worked for eight full years as Barack Obama’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications and speechwriting, a White House position that was inaugurated the same day Mr. Obama was. “Like Obama, Rhodes is a storyteller who uses a writer’s tools to advance an agenda that is packaged as politics but is often quite personal,” journalist David Samuels wrote in a 2016 profile. “Even where the particulars of that story are true, the implications that readers and viewers are encouraged to take away from those particulars are often misleading or false.”
Is it possible that Mr. Rhodes’s talent for telling tales has gotten the better of him? This week he published “The World as It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House.” A chapter excerpted in the Atlantic magazine tells the story of the 2013 Syria debacle, in which Mr. Obama backed down from his 2012 warning to dictator Bashar Assad that using “a whole bunch of chemical weapons” would violate an American “red line.”
Mr. Rhodes’s prose is engaging, and his Syria narrative, contrary to his slippery reputation, is astonishingly candid. We can attribute his honesty to a lack of self-awareness. He depicts himself, Mr. Obama and other members of the former president’s team as not only tragically indecisive and irresponsible but self-absorbed to the point of moral insensateness. Yet there is no indication Mr. Rhodes understands that his account is damning. He even writes a happy ending for Mr. Obama.
The 2013 crisis began in late August, when U.S. intelligence reported a “high-confidence assessment” that the Assad regime had used sarin gas to massacre more than 1,000 people in a Damascus suburb. Mr. Obama convened the National Security Council on Aug. 24. “The tone of the whole meeting suggested an imminent strike,” Mr. Rhodes writes. He began planning a public-relations offensive to support the military one. “It felt energizing,” he adds, “as though we were finally going to do something to shape events in Syria.”
But two days later Jim Clapper equivocated. As the director of national intelligence prepared for Mr. Obama’s daily briefing, he “looked agitated,” Mr. Rhodes writes. In the Oval Office, Mr. Clapper told the president that although (in Mr. Rhodes’s words) “all signs pointed to Assad’s ordering a catastrophic sarin attack,” the conclusion “was not yet a ‘slam dunk.’ ”
Mr. Clapper was fighting—check that, fighting against—the last war. “Slam dunk” was how George Tenet, as director of central intelligence in late 2002, described the evidence that Saddam Hussein’s Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. “Clapper seemed to be signaling that he wasn’t going to put the intelligence community in the position of building another case for another war in the Middle East that could go wrong,” Mr. Rhodes writes. “I felt the burden on Obama.”
Mr. Clapper assigned Mr. Rhodes to write an official assessment for the intelligence community to review and approve. “It took me a moment to understand what he was suggesting,” Mr. Rhodes writes. “These were usually technical documents produced by teams of people in the intelligence agencies.” Mr. Rhodes, a political operative with a master’s degree in creative writing, “felt waves of anxiety”—not because of the life-and-death stakes or his own underqualification for the task, but because he feared “I might be hauled before Congress if things went terribly wrong.”
Lawmakers were already beginning to cavil about the risks of intervention and about the separation of powers. “After deriding Obama’s response to Syria as weak, Republicans were now making the same warnings about action that we had used to publicly defend our inaction in the past,” Mr. Rhodes writes. Immediately after that merited criticism comes a telling complaint: “They were signaling that Obama would be held accountable if these scenarios were realized.” Some White House lawyers even feared impeachment for going to war without congressional authorization—in Mr. Rhodes’s view “hardly a wild thought,” never mind that Democrats held a 54-46 Senate majority, so at least 21 of them would have to agree to remove Mr. Obama from office.
“For eight years,” Mr. Rhodes continues, “Republicans had defended Bush’s ability to do whatever he pleased as commander in chief; now they were suddenly devoted to constitutional limits on the commander in chief?” Another fair cop, but Mr. Obama’s White House lawyers were making the same argument—that, in Mr. Rhodes’s paraphrase, there was no “domestic legal basis” for a strike other than “the assertion that the president had the inherent power to take military action that did not constitute a ‘war.’ ”
Within the White House, proponents of that view appealed to an authority they knew the president respected and admired: Barack Obama. Responding to a 2007 campaign questionnaire, he had written: “The president does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.”
At length Mr. Obama persuaded Mr. Obama. On Aug. 30 he summoned aides to a meeting in the Oval Office. There Mr. Rhodes found the president “looking more relaxed than he had all week. Gone was the grave look that had been frozen on his face. ‘I’ve got a big idea,’ he said.”
What was the big idea? Mr. Obama “had decided to seek congressional authorization for strikes on Syria.” Mr. Rhodes says the president told the room: “That quote from me in 2007—I agree with that guy. That’s who I am. And sometimes the least obvious thing to do is the right thing.” Mr. Rhodes does not explain how the course recommended by White House lawyers and demanded by adversarial (if opportunistic) lawmakers could have been the “least obvious” one.
The lone dissenter, national security adviser Susan Rice, is also the lone sympathetic figure in Mr. Rhodes’s drama. He quotes her as objecting that “we needed to hold Assad accountable” and “Congress is never going to give you this authority.”
Mr. Rhodes, meanwhile, “sat slouched over on the couch.” His boss’s big idea had plunged him into an identity crisis: “It was as if Obama was finally forcing me to let go of a part of who I was—the person who looked at Syria and felt that we had to do something, who had spent two years searching for hope amid the chaos engulfing the Arab world and the political dysfunction at home.”
By the time Mr. Rhodes’s turn came to speak, he had won victory over himself: “I told Obama I agreed with him.” Then he “gave voice to the building frustrations I’d been feeling” about “two dysfunctions in our foreign policy—Congress and the international community. They both press for action but want to avoid any share of the responsibility.”
Yet that was also the essence of Mr. Obama’s big idea. At the insistence of Ms. Rice and White House lawyers, the president’s request for congressional approval came with what Mr. Rhodes calls a “caveat”—to wit, “that we reserve the right to take action even if Congress didn’t approve strikes.”
That is not a caveat; it is a direct negation of the principle “that guy” enunciated in 2007 and cited as a constraint in 2013. In a rare moment of insight, Mr. Rhodes admits that the contradiction “undercut the moral, ethical, and legal clarity of the stance Obama was taking.” That is true but far too mild. The “caveat” was an acknowledgment that Mr. Obama was acting in bad faith. If he had the authority to order the strike on his own, it follows that only political necessity—the need to diffuse responsibility—could have required congressional approval.
The president’s entreaties to lawmakers met with indifference and resistance. Mr. Rhodes notes that opposition was bipartisan, but he criticizes only Republicans by name. At a White House meeting, House Speaker John Boehner promised to vote yes but said he wouldn’t urge other representatives to do so. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell didn’t even offer support. After the congressmen left, Mr. Rhodes reports, the president sneered: “Real profiles in courage.” If Mr. Rhodes appreciates the irony of Mr. Obama’s sarcasm, he doesn’t let on.
Messrs. Obama and Rhodes were in Russia Sept. 5 for a Group of 20 meeting. They conferred at the guesthouse where the president was staying and pondered why “even hawks on Syria” like Sen. Marco Rubio refused to support authorizing the use of force. “Maybe they just want to oppose you,” Mr. Rhodes said. “Or maybe no one wants to be on the record in support of another war.” He does not mention the possibility that Mr. Obama’s fecklessness had led them to doubt his ability to carry through an attack or to lead effectively in the event of complications.
Mr. Rhodes writes that he considered, but “left unspoken,” the danger “that the war could take a bad turn—like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya.” Five paragraphs later, while recounting the same conversation, he reports but does not highlight that the president disagreed with him. “In Libya,” Mr. Obama tells him, “everything went right—we saved thousands of lives, we didn’t have a single casualty, and we took out a dictator who killed hundreds of Americans. And at home, it was a negative.” At least Mr. Rhodes hadn’t forgotten the attack in Benghazi less than a year earlier.
In Russia Mr. Obama developed a Plan C. He suggested to Vladimir Putin that Washington and Moscow commit to, in Mr. Rhodes’s words, “working together to remove and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons.” Mr. Putin agreed, and on Sept. 14 the U.S., Russia and Syria signed a pact to that effect.
It proved ineffective. On April 4, 2017, the Syrian regime conducted another sarin-gas massacre, killing some 100 people. Three days later—with no legislative approval and little evident agonizing—President Trump ordered a strike on a Syrian air base, which produced neither a quagmire nor a breakdown of America’s constitutional order.
When Mr. Obama returned from Russia in September 2013, the prospect of congressional authorization had dimmed but was not quite extinguished. Mr. Rhodes reports that Mr. Obama had come to see the dispute as one he couldn’t lose. “If we won authorization,” Mr. Rhodes writes, the president would “be in a strong position to act in Syria.”
If they didn’t, Mr. Obama foresaw victory over an ideological abstraction. “The thing is,” Mr. Rhodes quotes the president, “if we lose this vote, it will drive a stake through the heart of neoconservatism—everyone will see they have no votes.” Mr. Trump is nobody’s idea of a neocon, and Hillary Clinton had supported striking Syria in 2013. But the 2016 election probably was not the form Mr. Obama expected his triumph to take.
After that conversation, Mr. Rhodes writes, “I realized . . . that he was comfortable with either outcome.” The people of Syria would remain afflicted.
Mr. Taranto is the Journal’s editorial features editor.
Appeared in the June 9, 2018, print edition.