What the Syria Showdown Taught Ben Rhodes

eputy U.S. National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes participates in the Washington Ideas Forum in Washington, September 30, 2015. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Intervention into the Syrian morass was a bad idea in 2013. It was a bad idea in 2016. And it remains a bad idea today.

Ben Rhodes, the foreign policy advisor and speechwriter who was President Barack Obama’s aide for all eight years of his administration, is something of a villain in conservative national-security circles. Republicans in Congress and senior fellows in hawkish think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation don’t generally have pleasant things to say about him.

When Rhodes is mentioned on the right, he is usually described as an object of derision; not as a sober-minded foreign-policy thinker, but an extreme partisan and Obama loyalist who worked his public-relations magic to create an “echo chamber” and deceive the United States into a weak nuclear deal with Iran. On conservative talk radio, Rhodes is the spinmeister and “political operative” with an ends-justify-the-means compose who will lie, cheat, spin, or cover up the facts if it helped the Obama administration’s political advantage—even if the situation involves terrorists murdering four Americans in Benghazi.

But it is Ben Rhodes’s recollection of the Syria red-line debacle in his new memoir, titled The World As It Is, that has opened wounds that have never really healed. In an excerpt published by the Atlantic last week, the former deputy national-security advisor in charge of strategic communications took readers inside the Situation Room during nearly two weeks of stress and chaos as the White House was trying to come up with a response to Bashar al-Assad’s first major sarin has attack against civilians in Damascus. During the first few days after the chemical attack, Rhodes writes about the near unanimity among Obama’s senior advisers in support of an American military response. “I joined a National Security Council meeting where officials advised Obama, one after another, to order a military strike,” Rhodes recollects. One of those officials was Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who consistently opposed U.S. military intervention in the civil war in the months and years before the regime's sarin gas assault.

We know how the story eventually ended. Obama, increasingly doubtful about America’s capacity to change Syria’s dreadful situation for the better, concluded at the end of the process that the decision to launch military force should be left to Congress. Sensing through constituent calls and public-opinion polls that the American people were not supportive of jumping into a ruthless civil conflict in another Arab country, lawmakers in both parties wanted nothing to do with Syria. Once it was clear that lawmakers would not provide him authorization to proceed, Obama shifted to diplomacy with the Russians in order to get Assad to agree to dismantle his declared chemical weapons infrastructure. The “blob” of mainstream foreign-policy intellectuals, which Rhodes seemed to strongly disdain, reacted to Obama’s unwillingness to enforce his chemical weapons red-line as a moral and strategic catastrophe. By refusing to punish Assad for such an atrocity, they argued, Obama squandered U.S. credibility in the eyes of its allies; emboldened its adversaries to challenge the global rules of the road; and exposed Washington as a paper tiger.

Nearly five years removed from that episode, those feelings of contempt are still hovering over the establishment. Proponents of a multiday missile barrage on the Syrian regime in the summer of 2013 remain utterly convinced after all these years that the Obama administration dropped the ball when it counted. Indeed, the criticism has resurfaced in many of the reviews of Rhodes’ memoir; one review in the Washington Post blames Obama’s fixation with preventing another Iraq as the factor that pulled him from military action. In the New Yorker, veteran staff writer George Packer second-guesses Obama’s hesitancy to bomb Assad’s chemical and military facilities in September 2013, while seeming to use the lack of action as a cause of the violence in Syria that followed. “We don’t know what a missile strike against Assad in 2013 might have achieved,” Packer acknowledges, “but we do know what followed Obama’s refusal to enforce his own red line: more Syrian government atrocities (including the repeated use of chemical weapons), millions more Syrian refugees, the shift of European politics to the populist right, an emboldened Russia intervening militarily in Syria.”