Ben Rhodes was a key adviser in the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama. With his memoir now being published in German, DER SPIEGEL spoke with him about the Donald Trump presidency, America’s diminished role in the world and Obama’s Middle East policy.
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Rhodes, would you agree that Donald Trump’s foreign policy is much better than its reputation?
Rhodes: No. Trump’s approach is rapidly accelerating the diminution of American influence, the spread of antidemocratic values and the increased difficulty in solving complex political problems, like climate change.
DER SPIEGEL: But hasn’t he been rather effective on some issues? He has forced NATO member states to increase their defense budgets. He’s tough on China, which could be beneficial not only for the U.S., but for Europe as well. And he is standing up to Iran’s military ambitions.
Rhodes: It won’t surprise you that I think absolutely not. In Southeast Asia and the Pacific, the Chinese are becoming the dominant power in a way that might have happened over the next 20 or 30 years. Instead, it’s happening in, like, four years, and it’s happening in part because Trump is disengaged. We don’t seem reliable anymore. Regarding NATO, he might have gotten some European countries to increase their defense spending, but they’re doing so because they want to have a more independent foreign and defense policy from the United States. He has called into question the very viability of the NATO alliance. He has done more to advance Russian aims than anything the Russians could do.
DER SPIEGEL: And yet, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg is full of praise for Trump. He says that NATO member states will spend an additional $100 billion on defense by the end of next year.
Rhodes: Why are Europeans spending more on defense? In part because they need to have a hedge against the United States. If you look at France, and to a lesser extent Germany, they’re having unprecedented discussions about separate defense arrangements with other countries outside of NATO. Trump views everything as a test of his own strength, including foreign policy, but he has no strategy attached to it. In the long run, that’s going to be totally destructive to American interests. Obama was trying to preserve American influence and leadership and a certain kind of international order by adjusting the way in which the United States acted around the world, and that becomes manifest in international agreements like the Paris Agreement, the Iran Agreement, the TransPacific Partnership, TTIP and others. Trump is just tearing things down and picking fights with people.
DER SPIEGEL: Like Obama, he has demanded that Europe — Germany in particular — do more in the Middle East.
Rhodes: Of course, but to what end? What does he want them to burden-share on? I don’t believe that European political leaders would follow Donald Trump into some effort in the Middle East simply because he’s so unreliable. On Afghanistan, Europe and Germany in particular did more than their fair share. On Libya, I would say Europeans could have done more. But I would argue that the Trump presidency is unprecedented in the last 70 years in compelling Europe to try to develop its own foreign policy independent of the United States because they find him to be so unreliable. The defense spending thing is a side show.
DER SPIEGEL: Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy focused on the nuclear threat from the Soviet Union, Bill Clinton placed an emphasis on morality, and Obama’s motto regarding military missions was: “Don’t do stupid shit.” Is there a Trump doctrine?
Rhodes: You mean if you strip out the occasional lies and hyperbole? Yes, there’s something there. If you boil down Trump’s approach to foreign policy, he is essentially hostile to anything that would bind the United States in any way an international agreement, an alliance. He thinks international relations should essentially be the United States acting solely in its own perceived selfinterest and trying to get what it wants on a casebycase basis through force. It’s a mix of isolationism and belligerence. It’s isolationist because we don’t really care about democracy and human rights beyond our borders, and we don’t really care about the functioning of the international system. It’s belligerent because when we do care about something, like China’s trade practices, we’re going to just rapidly escalate and try to see if we can get something out of that. That’s a very oldfashioned, anti-global, 19th century view of geopolitics, and one which leads to conflict.
DER SPIEGEL: Around two months after taking office, Trump ordered a limited strike against the Syrian air force after Assad’s troops yet again used a nerve agent against civilians. Why did Obama never do something similar?
Rhodes: I would argue that what Trump did had zero impact. But let me step back a little: We got an indication in July 2012 that the Syrian government might be preparing to use chemical weapons. So we issued warnings directly to the Syrian government, the Russians and the Iranian government, essentially saying: “Don’t use chemical weapons, and if you do, you will be held accountable.” We didn’t threaten military force, but it was kind of an ambiguous warning. We did provide assistance in the humanitarian crisis, and after it was determined that chemical weapons had been used on a small scale in early 2013, we began to support opposition forces with military aid.
DER SPIEGEL: In August 2012, Obama said the use of chemical weapons was a “red line.” Was this specific wording planned in advance?
Rhodes: No. We scripted language for Obama that the world is watching, and if you use these chemical weapons, you’ll be held accountable. A few weeks later in a press conference, he was asked a question about chemical weapons, and he described that as a “red line.” He used the phrase spontaneously. A president says millions of words, and you never know which words are actually going to be the most important. It’s an example of a case where language matters.
DER SPIEGEL: Was it immediately clear to you what this could mean politically?
Rhodes: I assumed that we would bomb Syria if they used chemical weapons on a large scale. In late 2012/early 2013, there were these reports of smallscale uses of chemical weapons in Syria. What was so difficult is it would take weeks to figure out what happened, maybe months. So it became apparent that, even though some of us were arguing for military force, we weren’t going to necessarily use it for something that took us so long to prove. There was always some kind of a complexity and ambiguity to it.
DER SPIEGEL: But that changed dramatically in August 2013, when Assad’s forces attacked Goutha, east of Damascus, with sarin gas. According to estimates, more than 1,000 people died, including children. What kept Obama from retaliating?
Rhodes: I remember meeting in the White House Situation Room with the National Security Council, it was either on a Saturday or a Sunday. The intelligence community said with high confidence that Assad had ordered this chemical attack. I think the general belief of everybody in the room was that we were going to do a military response, and there were very few people who argued against it. The bulk of the advice was, OK, we should attack Syria. Obama essentially told the military to prepare a strike, move whatever aircraft carrier you have to move. But he didn’t order a strike. He was worried about a team of UN inspectors on the ground that was collecting samples and investigating what happened. I left that meeting thinking, OK, we’re going to bomb Syria in the next couple of days. I actually started planning a communication strategy to make the case for bombing Syria.
DER SPIEGEL: But nothing happened. Why not?
Rhodes: Barack Obama felt you had to answer two questions. First, am I justified in taking military action in Syria? The answer was yes. Second, will my military action be effective? His answer was no. In a world in which that UN team hadn’t been there, I think he might have sent cruise missiles to Syria. It would have answered the “red line.” But frankly, nothing would have changed. Assad would still have been there. The conflict would have gone on.
DER SPIEGEL: How can you be so sure. Assad may have realized that there was a price to be paid for using chemical weapons.
Rhodes: Assad was going to fight to the death. He made a decision at the beginning of the conflict that he was going to either remain the leader of Syria, or he was going to die. He wasn’t going to negotiate his own removal from power. This is the mistake a lot of the criticism makes: The assumption that if we just bomb them, then maybe he will give up. No. A cruise missile strike would have just been a few more bombs falling on Syria, which is what happened when Trump took action. The only way to get Assad out is to take him out.
DER SPIEGEL: And that is something that Obama could still have done at that point in time. Russia and Iran were not yet involved.
Rhodes: There were some advisors who wanted to do that, probably John Kerry, probably me earlier in the crisis. At the same time, I was beginning to question whether military intervention for regime change in the Middle East can ever work. Look at what happened in Libya. You could see that removing someone who is horrible doesn’t necessarily make things better. We followed Gadhafi all the way into a drain pipe, and he was killed, and that didn’t fix the country either. Again, Obama didn’t have enough domestic or international support for a mission in Syria.
DER SPIEGEL: The British parliament at that time voted against a military mission, ruling out joining a U.S.-led attack.
Rhodes: Our closest ally in the world voted to prevent itself from joining us and the Germanswere never going to participate in the military operation — Angela Merkel wanted to let the UN process play out. Then at home, the Republicans basically warned Obama that if he carried out a strike without Congressional authorization, it wouldn’t be constitutional, which is a pretty significant warning if you control the House of Representatives. Obama looked at this and said: “I can’t go to war like that. I have no international legal basis to go to war in Syria, I have no domestic legal basis. And I have no international support except for the French. I’m going to be in a political crisis at home, and I’m going to be isolated internationally.” So he decided to test whether Congress would authorize military action.
DER SPIEGEL: Still, Assad had committed an act of mass murder by using chemical weapons. Couldn’t Obama have justified a unilateral strike on moral grounds alone?
Rhodes: In hindsight, it looks like: Oh, of course, he should have bombed. But if we had done that, you might be asking me today: “Why did you get into another Iraq War in Syria?” I think he decided that you couldn’t solve the problems in Syria with a oneoff cruise-missile strike, that it would be a slippery slope. Look, I’ve thought about this and lost sleep over this. You can make a very strong case that, given the humanitarian catastrophe, the U.S. was obliged to do something. But there is no way and I feel very strongly about this that anything the U.S. could have done militarily would have resulted in anything other than a civil war in Syria. The only difference is that we would have been a participant in that civil war. How can you ignore the examples of Iraq and Libya? In Iraq, we had 150,000 troops in that country, and they were still fighting a civil war with us there. We were just a party to this war. What is frustrating to me about the debate here and in Europe is that there’s almost a presumption that at any time, we could have just stopped the killing in Syria through the use of our military. That ignores at least the last 20 years of history in the Middle East.
DER SPIEGEL: Are you suggesting the U.S. shouldn’t intervene in the Middle East anymore?
Rhodes: I think you should intervene to take out certain actors. Defeating Islamic State, in my view, is a justified military intervention. You have a nihilistic, horrific, cultish terrorist organization that is also using the territory it holds to try to attack us in the United States or in Europe. But these regime-change wars, I don’t think they work in this region. The reason the Middle East is broken is not because the U.S. didn’t go to war in Syria. It’s because the U.S. went to war in Iraq. The dumbest thing that we’ve ever done is invading Iraq.
DER SPIEGEL: You write in your book about your growing frustration with having to constantly react to events instead of shaping things and changing the world. Did you become disillusioned with Obama?
Rhodes: No. I was disillusioned at times with work in government, less so with Obama. It’s not that I agreed with everything he did, but I felt like his general orientation was right. I did become frustrated at times, and a good example is Egypt, where I do find fault with our policy. We never gave democracy a chance. We broke from Mubarak dramatically because Obama thought it was the right thing to do, not just morally, but also because the situation in Egypt was not stable. But our government resisted that and continued to focus on the Egyptian military and intelligence services, because they valued what they know. That’s the kind of thing that was frustrating, because Obama wanted to see if we could reorient U.S. policy on Egypt, and his own government didn’t go along with it.
DER SPIEGEL: Reading your book, one gets the feeling that there’s a deep helplessness at the heart of government.
Rhodes: Sometimes it was hard to tell the difference between something happening because we’re doing something versus something happening because the world is a very difficult place. I’m trying to be open and transparent about that.
DER SPIEGEL: Is the importance of the U.S. in the world eroding?
Rhodes: The ability of the United States to exert the dominance we were able to do in the 1990s after the collapse of communism, that was always going to be temporary. I think the Iraq War and the financial crisis accelerated the extent to which that was temporary. Obama was just trying to recognize the world that we were actually in. This was not 2001 or 1998 anymore. We didn’t have the same level of dominance to just go around the world and do whatever we wanted. We needed to do things with other countries. That, oddly, was very controversial here.
DER SPIEGEL: You describe how skeptical Angela Merkel seemed to be of Obama early on. Ultimately, though, they seemed to become friends. How did that happen?
Rhodes: I think they came to genuinely like and appreciate each other’s personality in ways that surprised them. Merkel’s first impression of Obama was negative because it’s like: Why is this guy coming to Berlin in 2008 and giving a speech to 250,000 people and he’s not even the president yet? And Obama’s first impression was probably that Merkel was a bit aloof or inaccessible in some ways. They both proved each other wrong. She came to see that, for all his charisma, Obama’s style was very similar to hers, very pragmatic, nonideological, problemsolving, analytical. I remember watching the two of them at a meeting during the eurozone crisis, sitting there with notepads, designing ECB plans and kind of liking working together. She came to see that he was more like her than she thought. That yes, he is charismatic, but at his core, he’s a pragmatic and an analytical guy. And he could appreciate her dry sense of humor, her kind of reverse charisma. She’s sharp about other leaders. She’s willing to do things against her immediate political interests on the eurozone, refugees, Ukraine sanctions. The bigger piece is that for eight years they had to do big things together.
DER SPIEGEL: You wrote that, at the end of Obama’s last visit to Berlin as president, she had a tear in her eye. Is that really true?
Rhodes: Obama was stunned. He told us: “There’s this one tear that was coming out of her eye, and I never thought I’d see that from Angela.” Then he added: “Angela, she’s all alone now.” I think he felt the world had just been dropped on her shoulders.
DER SPIEGEL: What advice would you give her and others in Europe who have to deal with Trump?
Rhodes: I think the smartest strategy is to not have any illusions that you’re going to somehow charm Trump to your side. Macron tried the full charm strategy and it didn’t work. Merkel didn’t even bother. As a European, understand who you’re dealing with, and that flattery is not going to fundamentally change the dynamic. Then you have to be very clear about what you believe. There are places where you’re still going to work very closely with the United States, including a lot of areas where our governments work together on autopilot. But on other things you have to accept that you’re just going to have some pretty fundamental differences with the U.S. president on how the world works and how certain situations should be approached. That doesn’t mean that you need to throw out the whole transAtlantic relationship.
DER SPIEGEL: What qualities must a Democratic candidate have to beat Trump in 2020?
Rhodes: Democrats tend to win when we nominate somebody who can present themselves as an outsider, as a reformer. Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter — the last three Democrats to win ran as outsiders, as agents of change. When we nominate someone who is painted as an establishment figure — Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Al Gore, Walter Mondale — we lose. The second thing is, don’t take Trump’s bait. You have your message. You deliver it. Democrats are already enthused about beating Trump. You don’t need to fire them up. You don’t need to yell about the president. You can talk about your vision and not respond to every tweet. And third, you have to be able to answer the simple question: Why do you want to be president? Hillary had trouble answering that in 2008 and 2016.