Can Ben Rhodes, a 38-year-old White House speechwriter, possibly be the second-most powerful voice in US foreign policy?

In the mix.
In the mix.
Image: Reuters/Pete Souza
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

One of the hottest subjects in Washington at the moment is the hot water in which The New York Times Magazine has found itself.

The cauldron involves a May 5 profile of an Obama administration official. It got basic facts wrong and cast ethical aspersions against prominent journalists and political consultants, who were not offered a chance to respond. But the real problem with the piece, written by David Samuels, is its very premise—that US president Barack Obama’s “foreign-policy guru” is a 38-year-old communications whiz named Ben Rhodes.

The article is a lengthy profile of Rhodes, who serves as Obama’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications. That’s a fancy title for speechwriter—Rhodes has written drafts of a lot of Obama’s most important speeches. Obama even entrusted him to help negotiate the opening of diplomatic relations with Cuba last year.

A lot of White House insiders and knowing souls are galled with the story. They think that Rhodes is appallingly rude—he calls journalists know-nothings. By name, he suggests that a couple of groups of foreign-policy heavies are his shills, a simpering role to which he also consigns some of the most august names in the American foreign policy establishment. Defense writer Tom Ricks, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Pentagon—and whom the story does not name nor allude to in any way—concludes in his column in Foreign Policy that Rhodes’ remarks are cynical, ignorant, and a sign of “industrial-strength hubris.”

It’s easy to see why so many Washington hands think that Rhodes can easily come down a couple of notches: He has no credentials—either by prior employment nor academic or any other training—for the job he holds. He is smart, but so are a lot of youngish people in Washington, a town where to be overqualified is an unstated job description in most offices. In fact, he does not know more, and may know less, than a lot of the people he calls out in his interviews with Samuels (such as my Atlantic Media colleague Jeffrey Goldberg). Despite all that, Rhodes is extraordinarily favored by Obama, with whom he spends much time. Ostensibly, that is because he apparently understands the president almost better than anyone. A “mind meld,” is the repeated description of the simpatico between the two men. He is a remarkably good channeler of Obama’s thinking.

But where the piece really goes wrong is in conflating talented speechwriting and the occasional presidential fist-bumping with actual influence. Samuels writes that Rhodes, “according to the consensus of the two dozen current and former White House insiders I talked to, [is] the single most influential voice shaping American foreign policy aside from [Obama] himself.”

That Samuels and perhaps Rhodes himself think so is understandable—journalists, too, for instance, are routinely guilty of presuming they are influential with the people with whom they rub shoulders, often because they have been flattered. It’s something akin to a “Lord Jim Complex,” mated with the impact of reflected glory. You hang out with power, closer to it than a bunch of other people with whom you work, and you start to think you actually hold it. Sometimes they may think you do, too.

In the case of journalists, there is a direct relationship between the prominence of your news outlet and the flattery—New York Times reporters, for instance, are shamelessly flattered. But that, trust me, does not amount to influence—toadyism is an artifice meant to cultivate good press. So is Obama making everyone think that Rhodes is influential when he isn’t? Frankly, Obama has a great many more important things to think about.

Samuels did not respond to an email seeking comment. But both he and his editor, Jake Silverstein, say that they conflated nothing—this is what his reporting showed: Rhodes exercises “enormous influence on Administration policy, which was attested to both by Administration principals in dozens of interviews, and by the number of roles he fills in government,” Silverstein told Quartz in an email exchange.

Yet can this possibly be true? That—whether you agree with him or not—one of the brightest, most analytical minds we have had in a US president, a Harvard law graduate and former law professor—has embraced Rhodes, who holds a master’s degree in creative writing, as his most influential mind on foreign strategy? More influential than the director of the National Security Council? Than the secretaries of state or defense, or the director of the CIA?

This thesis is extremely hard to believe. It’s more likely the reporter and the Times have been had.

What one gets when plumbing this question is that, far above anyone else, Obama trusts his own judgment on foreign policy matters. Next come senior cabinet members, at least when they gang up together to make a point. After that are a bunch of people whom one might call influential but not in any singular way—not as standouts. And some of these might include White House staffers like Rhodes.

To be fair, some people actually do think Rhodes holds significant influence. White House press secretary Josh Earnest was asked about Rhodes’ influence during his daily briefing on May 9. He gave a longish answer, but here is part of it:

“There are many people that have—that play an influential role in guiding the—the president’s thinking when it comes to a range of foreign policy issues, but Ben is by all accounts, I think, an influential figure.”

Michael Grunwald, a writer at Politico, writes on May 10 that he has interviewed Rhodes; while taking exception to him on various grounds, he appears to embrace the influence monicker.

But not Mark Landler, the New York Times’ own White House correspondent. Landler’s new book, Alter Egos, is a study of the distinct foreign policy views of Obama and his first secretary of state, Hillary Clinton. He suggests that, while Rhodes is a very good speechwriter, and has influence because he can tell people what Obama actually thinks on a subject, that does not amount to influence. Landler told Quartz in an email exchange:

There’s no question Ben Rhodes’ influence extends beyond his speechwriting duties: he was involved in the diplomatic opening to Cuba and broke down resistance in the West Wing to the overture to Burma’s generals. That said, particularly in the first term, there were several far more powerful figures: Clinton, Bob Gates, Leon Panetta. Even now, I would argue, Denis McDonough wields more influence as a White House chief of staff who keeps a close eye on national security. He was the person Obama turned to on that famous walk on the South Lawn in 2013 when he pulled back from a missile strike on Syria, after Bashar Assad used chemical weapons.

Rhodes’ power derives from his ability to shape the president’s narrative—not a small thing in a White House obsessed with narrative. But he did not formulate the key policies on counterterrorism or Iran or Afghanistan or the pivot to Asia. Jake Sullivan was more involved in policy development on Iran and Asia. Ben also lost on some debates, e.g. more robust early support for the moderate rebels in Syria.

We’ve reached out to Rhodes for a comment.

In a post on Medium, Rhodes discusses one of the thrusts of the Samuels piece: the administration’s selling of the Iran nuclear deal. “A review of the press from that period will find plenty of tough journalism and scrutiny,” he writes.

Over at Politico, Joe Cirincione, president of the global arms-control foundation Ploughshares Fund, writes about the Samuels piece and his foundation’s mention in it.

Samuels takes a swipe at our work directly, quoting Rhodes as saying, “In the absence of rational discourse, we are going to discourse the [expletive] out of this. … We had test drives to know who was going to be able to carry our message effectively, and how to use outside groups like Ploughshares, the Iran Project and whomever else.”

I have known Ben Rhodes for over seven years. He is a good man who has served his nation well. I asked him about this quote. He said that he was trying to convey the work the White House did with like-minded groups. “I did not think I was saying—nor do I believe—that you just said what I told you to.”

Meanwhile, Goldberg, my colleague at The Atlantic (both The Atlantic and Quartz are owned by Atlantic Media), is personally smeared in the piece, which suggests that he and Laura Rozen of Al-Monitor were “handpicked” by the administration to help “retail the administration’s narrative” on the Iran deal. (This is not attributed to Rhodes, but rather is the apparent suggestion of another White House staffer quoted in the piece, a digital strategist who was directed by Rhodes to respond to social media related to the nuclear agreement.)

Now Goldberg is asking the Times for a correction. But that is only the beginning—it could be that the very premise of the piece might have been better vetted.

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly identified Josh Earnest as a State Department spokesman.