Born in 1977, Benjamin Rhodes attended New York’s prestigious Collegiate School and then earned a B.A. from Rice University, where he majored in English and political science. In 1997 Rhodes worked briefly as an opposition researcher for the re-election campaign of New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani and subsequently earned an MFA in creative writing from New York University.1 While pursuing his master’s degree, Rhodes taught writing at NYU and John Jay College.
In 2001 Rhodes worked for the campaign of a Democratic New York City Council candidate. The following year, he moved to Washington, DC to work for former U.S. Representative Lee Hamilton (Democrat-Indiana). Rhodes helped Hamilton draft the final report of the 9/11 Commission, which Hamilton vice-chaired. Rhodes also assisted Hamilton and 9/11 Commission chairman Thomas Kean in writing Without Precedent: The Inside Story of the 9/11 Commission.
When Hamilton was named co-chair of the Iraq Study Group in 2006, Rhodes helped him write that panel’s landmark report as well. Most notably, Rhodes wrote a majority of the chapter advocating direct U.S. diplomatic engagement with Iran and Syria, a recommendation that would have considerable influence on President Barack Obama beginning in 2009. Indeed, Obama ultimately adopted most of the report’s 79 suggestions. Critics have noted that the report’s “expert list” was heavily weighted with pro-Arab apologists who directed a number of rebukes pointedly at Israel. According to the American Thinker, “Some of the experts who were interviewed were appalled by the final written report because they felt it did not reflect facts, their testimony, or reality.”
In June 2007, while still working with Hamilton, Rhodes met then-U.S. Senator Obama for the first time. Then, after working briefly as a speechwriter for former Virginia governor Mark Warner, Rhodes joined Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign as a volunteer foreign-policy advisor. Soon thereafter, Rhodes was hired as a full-time senior speechwriter for Obama. From that point forward, he became one of Obama’s closest foreign-policy aides.
Rhodes played a key role in writing some of President Obama’s most significant speeches—e.g., the unveiling of America’s new strategy in Afghanistan; the outline of a plan for troop withdrawal from Iraq; a Nowruz message to Iran; and, most famously, Obama’s June 2009 Cairo address to the Muslim world. The latter—largely a public-relations maneuver intended to flatter Muslims—whitewashed Islamic tradition as one of “religious tolerance and racial equality,” and erroneously attributed accomplishments such as printing, navigation, and medicine to the Islamic world.
In September 2009 Rhodes became President Obama’s Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications and Speechwriting. Having established himself also as a trusted policy advisor, Rhodes was given an open invitation to attend national security meetings whenever he wished.
According to Michael McFaul, who worked with Rhodes in the National Security Council and was later named the American ambassador to Russia, Rhodes “became, first in the speechwriting process, and later, in the heat of the Arab Spring, a central figure” in the Obama administration. “Because of his close personal relationship with the president,” added McFaul, “Ben can always make policy through the speeches and statements made by President Obama.”
A May 2016 New York Times profile reported that Rhodes was, “according to the consensus of the two dozen current and former White House insiders [whom author David Samuels] talked to, the single most influential voice shaping American foreign policy aside from [President Obama] himself; that according to Obama’s chief of staff Denis McDonough, the president and Rhodes communicated “regularly, several times a day”; and that “part of what accounts for Rhodes’s influence is his ‘mind meld’ with the president.” “Nearly everyone I spoke to about Rhodes,” wrote Samuels, “used the phrase ‘mind meld’ verbatim, some with casual assurance and others in the hushed tones that are usually reserved for special insights. He doesn’t think for the president, but he knows what the president is thinking, which is a source of tremendous power. One day, when Rhodes and I were sitting in his boiler-room office, he confessed, with a touch of bafflement, ‘I don’t know anymore where I begin and Obama ends.'”
The likemindedness between Rhodes and Obama had long been apparent to close observers. “Watching him and the president work,” deputy national security adviser Denis McDonough had said years earlier, “it’s obvious that there’s a lot of shared world view.” Obama advisor and confidante David Axelrod concurred: “He [Rhodes] really understands the president’s voice. They’ve got a great mind-meld on these issues.”
In the aforementioned New York Times profile of May 2016, Samuels discussed the large degree to which Rhodes and his colleagues in the Obama White House viewed themselves essentially as storytellers tasked with shaping public perceptions. For instance, Samuels wrote that when he had asked Rhodes’s close friend Jon Favreau, Obama’s lead speechwriter in the 2008 campaign, “whether he or Rhodes or the president had ever thought of their individual speeches and bits of policy making as part of some larger restructuring of the American narrative,” Favreau replied, “We saw that as our entire job.” Added Samuels:
“Like Obama, Rhodes is a storyteller who uses a writer’s tools to advance an agenda that is packaged as politics but is often quite personal. He is adept at constructing overarching plotlines with heroes and villains, their conflicts and motivations supported by flurries of carefully chosen adjectives, quotations and leaks from named and unnamed senior officials. He is the master shaper and retailer of Obama’s foreign-policy narratives, at a time when the killer wave of social media has washed away the sand castles of the traditional press. His ability to navigate and shape this new environment makes him a more effective and powerful extension of the president’s will than any number of policy advisers or diplomats or spies. His lack of conventional real-world experience of the kind that normally precedes responsibility for the fate of nations — like military or diplomatic service, or even a master’s degree in international relations, rather than creative writing — is still startling.”
In his interview with Samuels, Rhodes described how easy it was for him to fool most reporters into accepting and parroting the Obama adminstration’s narrative regarding its policies: “All these newspapers used to have foreign bureaus. Now they don’t. They call us to explain to them what’s happening in Moscow and Cairo. Most of the outlets are reporting on world events from Washington. The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.”
Rhodes’s Influence in Shaping Specific Obama Administration Policies and the Public Narratives Regarding Those Policies
When massive anti-government revolutions erupted in Egypt and Libya in 2011, Rhodes helped persuade President Obama to reverse three decades of U.S. support for then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and also to lead an intervention against then-dictator Muammar Qaddafi in Libya. For the Libyan campaign, Rhodes, carefully avoiding the use of the word “war,” coined the euphemism “kinetic military action.”2
In early 2013, Rhodes became a strong advocate for more aggressive U.S. efforts to support the Syrian opposition—which included many Islamist, al Qaeda-affiliated elements—against President Bashar al-Assad.
Also early that year, Rhodes, speaking about the ongoing Mideast conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors, said: “Israel needs to take into account the changing dynamic and the need to reach out to public opinion across the region as it seeks to make progress on issues like Israeli-Palestinian peace and broader Arab-Israeli peace.”
In May 2013, journalist Stephen Hayes reported that Rhodes had likely been a key player behind the Obama administration’s effort to cover up the fact that a deadly September 11, 2012 attack against a U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya was a premeditated act of terrorism rather than—as the administration initially depicted it—an unplanned, spontaneous escalation of a nonviolent demonstration against an obscure anti-Islam YouTube video that had recently been produced in the United States. Hayes wrote that the “frantic process” of editing and re-editing the talking points involved senior officials from the State Department, the National Security Council, the CIA, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and the White House. And he mentioned Ben Rhodes by name, explaining that on September 14, 2012, Rhodes had advised those involved in the process that all the edits would be finalized the following morning in a White House meeting of top administration officials. ABC News confirmed that on September 14, 2012, Rhodes wrote the following to his high-level colleagues in the Obama administration:
“We must make sure that the talking points reflect all agency equities, including those of the State Department, and we don’t want to undermine the FBI investigation. We thus will work through the talking points tomorrow morning at the Deputies Committee meeting.”
On April 29, 2014, previously unreleased internal Obama administration emails—obtained by Judicial Watch via the Freedom of Information Act—confirmed that Rhodes indeed had sent emails to top White House officials such as David Plouffe and Jay Carney just a day before Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice would make her infamous appearances on five Sunday news programs, where she portrayed the attacks as spontaneous reactions to an obscure YouTube video rather than as premeditated acts of terror.
According to one of Rhodes’s emails, the “goal,” was “to underscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader failure or policy.” His email also advised Rice and other administration officials to articulate that:
“[W]e’ve made our views on this video crystal clear. The United States government had nothing to do with it. We reject its message and its contents. We find it disgusting and reprehensible. But there is absolutely no justification at all for responding to this movie with violence. And we are working to make sure that people around the globe hear that message.”
Rhodes further instructed Rice and the others to say something to the effect of: “I think that people have come to trust that President Obama provides leadership that is steady and statesmanlike. There are always going to be challenges that emerge around the world, and time and again, he has shown that we can meet them.”
David Samuels’s May 2016 New York Times profile of Rhodes explains how Rhodes willingly and proudly used his storytelling skills to deceive the American public regarding the details and implications of the nuclear deal that the Obama administration had recently negotiated with Iran—an agreement allowing the terrorism-supporting regime in Tehran to inspect its own Parchin nuclear weapons research site, conduct uranium enrichment, build advanced centrifuges, buy ballistic missiles, fund terrorism, and have a near-zero breakout time to a nuclear bomb. (For additional details about the accord, click here.) Key excerpts from the Times piece include the following:
Rhodes’s innovative campaign to sell the Iran deal is likely to be a model for how future administrations explain foreign policy to Congress and the public. The way in which most Americans have heard the story of the Iran deal presented — that the Obama administration began seriously engaging with Iranian officials in 2013 in order to take advantage of a new political reality in Iran, which came about because of elections that brought moderates to power in that country — was largely manufactured for the purpose for selling the deal. Even where the particulars of that story are true, the implications that readers and viewers are encouraged to take away from those particulars are often misleading or false. Obama’s closest advisers always understood him to be eager to do a deal with Iran as far back as 2012, and even since the beginning of his presidency….
In the narrative that Rhodes shaped, the “story” of the Iran deal began in 2013, when a “moderate” faction inside the Iranian regime led by Hassan Rouhani beat regime “hard-liners” in an election and then began to pursue a policy of “openness,” which included a newfound willingness to negotiate the dismantling of its illicit nuclear-weapons program. The president set out the timeline himself in his speech announcing the nuclear deal on July 14, 2015: “Today, after two years of negotiations, the United States, together with our international partners, has achieved something that decades of animosity has not.” While the president’s statement was technically accurate — there had in fact been two years of formal negotiations leading up to the signing of the J.C.P.O.A. [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] — it was also actively misleading, because the most meaningful part of the negotiations with Iran had begun in mid-2012, many months before Rouhani and the “moderate” camp were chosen in an election among candidates handpicked by Iran’s supreme leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The idea that there was a new reality in Iran was politically useful to the Obama administration. By obtaining broad public currency for the thought that there was a significant split in the regime, and that the administration was reaching out to moderate-minded Iranians who wanted peaceful relations with their neighbors and with America, Obama was able to evade what might have otherwise been a divisive but clarifying debate over the actual policy choices that his administration was making. By eliminating the fuss about Iran’s nuclear program, the administration hoped to eliminate a source of structural tension between the two countries, which would create the space for America to disentangle itself from its established system of alliances with countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel and Turkey. With one bold move, the administration would effectively begin the process of a large-scale disengagement from the Middle East.
The nerve center for the selling of the Iran deal to Congress, which took place in a concentrated three-month period between July and September of last year, was located inside the White House, and is referred to by its former denizens as “the war room.” Chad Kreikemeier, a Nebraskan who had worked in the White House Office of Legislative Affairs, helped run the team, which included three to six people from each of several agencies, he says, which were the State Department, Treasury, the American delegation to the United Nations (i.e., Samantha Power), “at times D.O.D.” (the Department of Defense) and also the Department of Energy and the National Security Council. Rhodes “was kind of like the quarterback,” running the daily video conferences and coming up with lines of attack and parry. “He was extremely good about immediately getting to a phrase or a way of getting the message out that just made more sense,” Kreikemeier remembers. Framing the deal as a choice between peace and war was Rhodes’s go-to move — and proved to be a winning argument….
In the spring of , legions of arms-control experts began popping up at think tanks and on social media, and then became key sources for hundreds of often-clueless reporters. “We created an echo chamber,” [Rhodes] admitted, when I [reporter David Samuels] asked him to explain the onslaught of freshly minted experts cheerleading for the deal. “They were saying things that validated what we had given them to say.”
When I [Samuels] suggested that all this dark metafictional play seemed a bit removed from rational debate over America’s future role in the world, Rhodes nodded. “In the absence of rational discourse, we are going to discourse the [expletive] out of this,” he said. “We had test drives to know who was going to be able to carry our message effectively, and how to use outside groups like Ploughshares, the Iran Project and whomever else. So we knew the tactics that worked.” He is proud of the way he sold the Iran deal. “We drove them crazy,” he said of the deal’s opponents.
Rhodes’s Role in Shaping U.S. Policy Toward Cuba
On November 29, 2016, the White House announced that Rhodes and Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the top U.S. diplomat to Cuba, would represent the United States by attending the memorial service for the former Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, who had died four days earlier. White House press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters: “The president has decided not to send a presidential delegation to attend the memorial service today. Those of you who have been following this story closely over the last couple of years know that Mr. Rhodes has played a leading role in crafting the normalization policy [with Cuba] that President Obama announced about two years ago. He has been the principal interlocutor with the Cuban government from the White House in crafting this policy and implementing it successfully.”
For additional information on Benjamin Rhodes, click here.
1 Before turning permanently to politics, Rhodes, an aspiring fiction writer, penned an unfinished novel titled Oasis of Love, wherein, he explains, “a woman breaks the guy’s heart because she becomes a member of a megachurch.”
2 In both Egypt and Libya, the U.S.-assisted revolutions ultimately resulted in the ascendancy of jihadist organizations and movements; in Egypt, the reins of post-Mubarak governance were taken up by Mohammed Morsi, a longtime leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood.