Obama’s willingness to be honest about the West’s imperial past led conservative critics to accuse him of conducting an “apology tour,” a meretricious dodge. They ignored the other half of his message, which gave it an elegant balance: “Islam has to recognize the contributions that the West has made to articulate certain principles that are universal.”
All presidents do stupid stuff overseas; the world beyond our ocean borders is too complicated to be fully known. Obama made mistakes of optimism. He assumed the old, autocratic order in the Middle East was about to change; he underestimated the power of tribalism, which provided identity amid amorphous globalism. Rhodes encouraged these delusions — along with the White House advisers Samantha Power and Susan Rice, who professed a somewhat tortured liberal militarism, a faith in humanitarian intervention. The story of how Rhodes progressed from this idealism to a more nuanced vision of “the world as it is” is at the heart of this book.
“I was part of a cohort of younger staffers … who shared a distaste for the corrupt way in which the Middle East was ruled,” Rhodes writes. Obama sided with the idealists early on, especially when protesters filled Cairo’s Tahrir Square in the first flush of the Arab Spring. “If it were up to him,” Rhodes reports Obama saying, “he’d prefer that the ‘Google guy’ run Egypt, referring to Wael Ghonim … who was helping to lead the protest movement.” Rhodes writes that Obama “didn’t mean it literally. … But his senior staff was in a different place.” Indeed, Vice President Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were all counseling caution: Don’t be so quick to oust the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. There was no guarantee that democracy would ensue — and, in fact, democracy led to an electoral victory by the Muslim Brotherhood, which led to a military coup.
The same mistake was made in Libya. The dictator Muammar Qaddafi threatened to massacre his opponents in Benghazi. Susan Rice compared the situation to Rwanda, where Bill Clinton was said to have “allowed” a genocide. Samantha Power passed Rhodes a note stating “this was going to be the first mass atrocity that took place on our watch.” Rhodes agreed. “We’d have to consider,” he advised in his new role as a deputy national security adviser, “what we would say if we choose not to do something.” A good point, especially with the Europeans and the Arab League (very briefly) urging action. But military intervention — and the eventual removal of Qaddafi — led to chaos. The impulse to prevent a massacre was noble, but it was speculative; the chaos was real. And the more general disorder in the region led to revolts and atrocities in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. There were, Rhodes slowly realized, events in the world beyond America’s influence.
By the time Bashar Assad dropped poison gas on his populace, both Obama and Rhodes were having second thoughts. Obama had established the use of chemical weapons as a “red line” and then chose not to respond militarily when Assad crossed it. Rhodes’s description of these deliberations — and most of the other real-time crises — is particularly illuminating, given Donald Trump’s subsequent missile strikes. Obama calculated that any military action that would have an actual impact on Assad’s behavior might lead to a wider war. He may well have been right, but he seemed weak at the time. Trump, by contrast, seemed strong, but the effect of his strikes appears to have been negligible. In a remarkable moment, in the midst of the deliberations over what to do about Syria, Obama completes his transition to realism by telling Rhodes: “Maybe we would never have done Rwanda. … You can’t stop people from killing each other like that.” This is the reality of “The World as It Is.” Sometimes there are no good choices.