When you’re good at something, you should never do it for free. That’s perhaps why Barack Obama’s former deputy national security advisor, Ben Rhodes, is gearing up to politicize national security issues once again in a professional capacity.
On Tuesday, Rhodes revealed his intention to join former Obama administration officials, Hillary Clinton staffers, and a handful of career civil servants to form “National Security Action,” a 501(c)(4) that will not endorse candidates but will campaign against them. You can probably guess who this organization’s primary target will be. “We’re a temporary organization,” Rhodes told the Washington Post. “Our hope is to be out of business in three years.”
We’ll dispense with the fiction that the conduct of American affairs abroad should be exempt from the petty squabbling that typifies the political process at home. Politics does not and never has stopped at the water’s edge. When it comes to national security, the current administration deserves its share of criticism. The Trump administration spent its first year ceding the turf war in Syria to other competing great powers, and the conditions in the region have only worsened. Similarly, and as former Obama administration officials won’t let you forget, the Trump administration has not done nearly enough to deter Moscow from intervening in the American political process again. Even National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers recently confirmed that the Russian regime has not “paid a price that is sufficient to change their behavior.” What’s more, Rogers has not been directed by the president to “disrupt Russian cyber threats where they originate.”
These are all urgent national-security threats about which every American should be concerned, and polls suggest that they are. Unfortunately for those who take these and other national-security threats seriously, Rhodes and company are among the least credible advocates for their cause.
Obama’s former advisor is keenly aware of his talent for leading the press by the nose to report his preferred narratives. He bragged in a New York Times Magazine profile about the “echo chamber” he and his colleagues “created” by recruiting reporters and experts to parrot “things that validated what we had given them to say.” Officially, this ventriloquist act was a contrivance designed to sell the public on a thaw in relations between the West and the Islamic Republic of Iran—a project viewed with some suspicion by the foreign-policy establishment Rhodes derisively referred to as “the blob.” According to profiler David Samuels, “the Blob includes Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates, and other Iraq-war promoters from both parties who now whine incessantly about the collapse of the American security order in Europe and the Middle East.” Rhodes’s organization has formally joined the whining about America’s supposedly declining influence.
The core obstacle before Rhodes, Susan Rice, Eric Holder, and the panoply of former Obama officials engaged in a synchronized denunciation of the Trump administration’s Russia policy is credibility. The challenges the West now faces from Moscow are directly attributable to the last administration’s Iran policy.
The Obama administration entered office determined to shift the balance of power in the Middle East toward Tehran to achieve a variety of utilitarian ends. Such a shift would allow the Obama administration to withdraw from Iraq secure in the belief that Baghdad’s security, if not autonomy, would be preserved within a Shiite-dominated sphere of influence. A nuclear accord would also stave off the prospect of conflict with Iran over its burgeoning atomic-weapons program for the time Obama was in the White House. Those objectives informed policy toward Moscow—one of Iran’s most influential allies. Absent Russian diplomatic and material cooperation, there would have been no Iran deal. Thus, no concession was too much for Moscow.
The desire to preserve the prospects for an Iran deal led the administration to pursue a cloying “reset” with Russia just months after its invasion and dismemberment of neighboring Georgia. It compelled Barack Obama to withdraw his self-set “red line” for action against another Russian ally in Syria. It led Obama to deliver a convoluted address to the nation in September 2013 in which he made a case for war against the regime, but promptly withdrew that case in announcing Russia’s intention to separate Damascus from its chemical arms stockpile. It led the administration to defend Russia’s demonstrably terrible record of liquidating wholly and entirely Syria’s chemical weaponry.
The administration’s dreams of détente with Iran compelled John Kerry’s State Department to elevate Moscow to the role of chief power broker in the region, facilitating Russia’s diplomatic offensives elsewhere in the Middle East. American withdrawal emboldened Moscow to intervene militarily in Ukraine in 2014 when it became the first European state to invade and annex neighboring territory since 1945. It set events into motion that would culminate in Russian military intervention in Syria in 2015, which opened with Russian airstrikes on CIA-provided weapon caches and US-backed anti-Assad insurgents and is presently climaxing in direct combat between U.S. soldiers and Russian mercenaries.
The crisis in Syria, where Americans and Russians are coming into dangerous proximity, was inflamed by Iran as Democrats did their best to look the other way. Iranian air and ground forces began streaming into Syria as early as 2012, under the watchful eye of the detestable blob. In concert with their Russian allies, Iran and its proxy Hezbollah have been implicated in grotesque crimes against humanity. The whole time, Russia and Iran coordinated their actions in Syria openly. The Kremlin has, for example, played host to Quds Forces General Qassem Soleimani, a sanctioned Iranian figure believed to be responsible for the deaths of hundreds of U.S. military personnel in Iraq.
Under Obama in 2011, an Iranian agent pleaded guilty to the charge that he was planning to bomb a Georgetown café to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s U.S. ambassador, Adel al-Jubeir. In 2016, 10 U.S. Navy personnel were taken captive by Iran and humiliated on camera by the regime; the only people punished for that incident were the sailors. In the same January 2017 weekend in which a U.S. Navy Destroyer fired four warning shots on Iranian “fast-attack vessels” as they closed in on the ship at speed, the State Department composed a note of condolences for the death of former Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani—the first of its kind since the 1979 revolution. Rafsanjani, the essential Iranian “moderate,” was named by Argentinian prosecutors of suspected involvement in the 1994 bombing of a Jewish center that killed over 80 people and was likely involved in planning the 1996 Khobar Towers bombings, in which 19 U.S. Air Force Personnel were killed.
Rhodes and his new organization will almost certainly benefit from the collective amnesia of the political press ahead of 2020. He is a gifted manipulator, and he has chosen willing subjects on which to practice his craft. But the claim his organization will peddle—that the United States has done nothing to correct for the Obama administration’s craven leniency toward Iran and Russia—is contemptible. That agitated claim is likely a byproduct of the Democratic foreign-policy establishment’s justified insecurity over its dubious record. The Democratic Party’s sudden desire to contain the axis of revisionist regimes orienting themselves in opposition to the U.S.-led status quo is thoroughly desirable. It should be cultivated by those of us who were warning about the threat posed by a revanchist Moscow-Tehran alliance for years, and only ever to the sound of Democratic scorn. If Democrats are seriously committed to their transformation, they need to find a better messenger than one of the chief architects of our present predicament.