Nonfiction: Deep Inside the Obama White House

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.

Setting Tone for Post-Presidency, Obama Will Speak in South Africa on Tolerance

The choice of Mandela and South Africa are freighted with symbolism for Mr. Obama at a time when his political legacy is being dismantled by his successor, President Trump, who crudely disparaged African countries and complained about laws that would protect immigrants from those places.


Mr. Obama speaking at the University of Cape Town in 2013. Mr. Obama is inaugurating his most significant international project as an ex-president, with an announcement that the Obama Foundation plans to convene 200 young people in July in Johannesburg for five days of meetings, workshops and technical training.

Evan Vucci/Associated Press

“It gives him an opportunity to lift up a message of tolerance, inclusivity and democracy at a time when there are obviously challenges to Mandela’s legacy around the world,” said Benjamin J. Rhodes, a former speechwriter for Mr. Obama who still advises him.

“Mandela,” he added, “endured far darker times than anything we’re enduring today.”

Mr. Obama does not plan to take on Mr. Trump directly, in keeping with his practice of not publicly criticizing his successor. But Mr. Rhodes said he would not shrink from confronting the divisive issues raised by the Trump presidency.

“There’s an enhanced sense of tribalism in the world,” he said. “Our unifying theory is that the best way to promote inclusive and democratic societies is by empowering young people in civil society.”

Mr. Obama, he said, views this as the most important speech he has given since leaving the White House, one that will set the tone for his post-presidency. Mandela was a beacon to Mr. Obama, inspiring what he once said was his first “act of political activism” — a speech he gave as a student at Occidental College for the anti-apartheid movement.

He labored over his eulogy to Mandela, rewriting Mr. Rhodes’s draft from top to bottom in longhand — something he had done only once before, with his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize. Mr. Rhodes said he expected the former president, with more time on his hands now, to write this speech himself.

Mr. Obama and his wife, Michelle, remained in Washington after he left office, so their younger daughter, Sasha, could finish school. But they have kept a low profile in the capital. Much of Mr. Obama’s time is spent working on his presidential memoir. He has largely steered clear of domestic politics, though aides said they expected him to return to the campaign trail as the midterm elections draw closer.

Overseas, however, Mr. Obama has cut a wider swath. He has visited 16 countries for speeches or meetings, drawing crowds and V.I.P. treatment everywhere he goes. In Beijing, Mr. Xi invited him to a private dinner to sound him out about political developments in the United States.


Mr. Obama during a welcoming ceremony in Auckland, New Zealand, last month. He has largely steered clear of domestic politics since leaving the White House, but has cut a wider swath overseas, visiting 16 countries for speeches or meetings.

Simon Watts/Dept of Internal Affairs, via Associated Press

The Obama Foundation’s emphasis on developing young people, Mr. Rhodes said, is consciously different than the focus of other foundations, like those of Bill Clinton or Bill and Melinda Gates, which tend to concentrate on solving specific problems. He said it drew on Mr. Obama’s roots as a community organizer in Chicago.

“When I was in my last year in office, part of what I asked myself is, ‘What would be the most important contribution I could make?’” Mr. Obama said during a recent round table with young people in Singapore. “What I really felt most strongly about was, ‘How do we develop the next generation of leaders?’”

The Obama Foundation’s Africa program is a yearlong initiative that aims to train people for roles in government, civil society and the private sector. The 200 participants were chosen from an applicant pool of nearly 10,000, said Bernadette Meehan, a former diplomat who oversees the program as chief international officer of the foundation.

Mr. Obama plans to recruit veterans of his administration and big-name friends to speak to the young people in Johannesburg. He will hold a town-hall-style meeting with them at the end, something he made a practice of doing during his trips as president.

For his former aides and supporters, looking back on those sessions can be bittersweet. During a visit to Laos in September 2016, Mr. Obama used one of these meetings, part of a program called the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative, to promote the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement that was intended to include the United States and other Pacific Rim countries.

A young Vietnamese man asked him about the failure of Congress to ratify the pact, and whether the prospects for the agreement would be better or worse under a new president.

“I believe it will be ratified because it’s the right thing to do,” Mr. Obama replied. “We’re in a political season now, and it’s always difficult to get things done. Congress isn’t doing much right now; they’re all going home and talking to constituents, trying to get re-elected. After the election, people can refocus attention on why this is so important.”

As it turned out, of course, Mr. Trump was elected, and he pulled the United States out of the trade agreement in his first week in office.

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