Susan Glasser: So, this is Susan Glasser, and welcome back to The Global POLITICO. Once again, our guests this week, we’re very lucky to have both Ambassador Samantha Power, and Ben Rhodes joining us. An unlikely buddy movie pair, as it were. No, but seriously, this is such an interesting timing to have a movie, almost like a document from another era in our life.
We’re having this conversation here in Washington, not quite exactly one year after the inauguration of President Trump. The movie ends with the inauguration of President Trump. I won’t spoil the ending for those of you who—
Samantha Power: He wins.
Glasser: Well, yes, actually, okay. So, Samantha, we might as well start with that, then, probably the most memorable scene to some people certainly—this incredible moment of election night in your big apartment in New York City, where you’re the ambassador to the United Nations. Tell us about that scene.
Power: Well, I’ve had a lot of bad ideas in my life, but none as immortalized as this one. I decided on election night to invite the 37 women ambassadors to the U.N., many of whom face struggles in their own foreign service, or at the U.N. of a kind that, as an American, I never did. And I thought what an amazing night for them. I mean, that’s what America represents to the world, when a glass ceiling is shattered in our country, it creates a whole new sense of possibility for people everywhere.
And so, I invited them. Most of them came, and we gathered with Madeleine Albright, our first woman secretary of state; Gloria Steinem, who is not only an icon here, of course, but all around the world, and we went through the same process, if you want to call it that, that so many people did at their election parties. As the host, I was kind of hoping it wouldn’t be quite the blowout that it was anticipated to be, because I wanted to make sure that people had a chance to interact with Gloria Steinem, and one of—
Glasser: So, your concern was that actually that the evening was going to be over early.
Power: Too soon. I wanted to milk the soft power dividend of this moment, and instead, and HBO was there, I guess unfortunately or fortunately, to capture it all, but instead, you really see what so many people went through, which was all of that sense of promise and excitement, and frankly, a dose of complacency. And then, it slowly dawning on us that not only was this going to be much closer than anybody anticipated, but that it was not going to end well.
And for me, every time I see that, I am haunted most, actually, by the images of my children, who were running around the apartment for much of the night, but when the election is called, my daughter, who at that time is four, is just lying in my lap, kind of like this pale, Irish statue, and there’s something about the way she’s lying, I don’t know, that just makes her look like she’s the one who’s going to inherit—
Glasser: The image is extraordinary.
Power: She’s going to inherit this—what he does is on her, right? It’s like we’ve somehow collectively landed in this place, but the people who are going to feel this, and be affected by this are these innocents. And as it happens, I was looking at a young child, but there’s so many other innocents who are being subjected to the cruelty, as we speak here today.
But yes, I think that scene moves viewers the most because it triggers, I think, a kind of post-traumatic stress about their own election night experience, which mirrored mine—
Glasser: Speaking of post-traumatic stress, Ben, you seemed like you were having not post-traumatic but actual trauma—like, you couldn’t speak. Where were you?
Power: For Ben Rhodes not to be able to speak, you know something really unusual has happened.
Glasser: And the fact they kept the camera on that.
Ben Rhodes: Yeah, no. As people who know me know, probably to a fault, I am usually not without thoughts and words. But you know, I think—I kept trying—beginning to say something, and the film shows that basically I can’t speak, because anything I was going to say was just going to be kind of a lame rationalization.
And when, in reality, you know, sometimes things are just terrible. And I think that that two layers of feelings that I had after the election, one is just on a very personal level, you know, we just spent ten years—you’re watching the film, it’s like watching yourself run the 26-mile marathon, and to just feel—and President Obama used to describe it as we’re going to hand off the baton. And it’s like you could see someone reaching back to take the baton, and suddenly nobody is there.
Because, personally, you’re feeling like, ‘well, all these things I worked on, what’s going to happen to them?’ And this sense of, you know, you put all this time and effort and caring into different things that are now going to be threatened or attacked or undermined in some ways, it was powerful. But then, more broadly, I think, beyond just me personally was the sense of the unknown.
I mean, that’s why I didn’t have anything to say. Like, if Jeb Bush was elected president, or even Marco Rubio, you know, I wouldn’t have liked that, but I could have foreseen what was going to happen, and what that was going to look like.
Glasser: That’s why I said, it’s almost like a document from a different era, because that unknown continues today. A year later, we’re watching it.
Rhodes: It’s like a time capsule. What’s so interesting about the twist ending is not great for the world, but it’s great for the film, because now suddenly, it’s like this document from another age. It’s like watching something—it doesn’t feel like a year ago. It feels like a decade ago.
Glasser: Right, so that’s why I thought it was good to start with this, you know, also it is the sort of dramatic highlight of the movie, but that’s the place that we’re in, is from that moment forward, now. And so, obviously, your whole record, not just from the last year of President Obama’s tenure, but all eight years, is really thrown into uncertainty as well, because we don’t know the ending. You would think you know the ending because Obama left office, but in fact, we don’t. The story of your foreign policy accomplishments is still very much up in the air. So, a year later, how much do you feel like that picture is being filled in? Obviously, some of the things Trump said he would attack on the campaign trail, he has. He’s withdrawn from Paris, although we don’t exactly know what the long-term consequences are; withdrawn from TPP. He’s certainly not active on any of the issues that you really spent your time on at the United Nations. How do you each feel about where Obama’s record is right now?
Rhodes: I’d say two things. I mean, one is what Trump has done is in some ways not surprising. He’s partially rolled back Cuba, he’s pulled out of Paris, he’s threatened to kill the Iran deal but not done it. But what’s been worse to watch, I think, is underneath that, the hollowing out of the State Department, the defunding of all the types of programs that Samantha and I fought to get money for to help peacekeeping, or to help promote education around the world; the kind of unseen elements of American foreign policy that underpin the liberal international order, that’s where the year has been much worse than I imagined.
I anticipated him taking aim at some of our legacy accomplishments, but it’s more this disavowal of an entire approach to the world — and it’s not just Obama, it’s fairly bipartisan over the decades. What I like about the film is, on the one hand, it’s hardest to watch the good moments, because I was very proud of Cuba, and it’s now sad to see that partially rolled back. But on the other hand, it does remind you in the long term, part of what we were doing is an approach to foreign policy, and that is an approach that can be returned to.
And the Paris Accord is how the world is going to deal with climate change, and they can return to that. And Cuba, the embargo should be lifted, and the next president can do that. So, it does remind you that the pendulum can swing, and just as this year, the pendulum has swung incredibly dramatically away from what we did, seeing the other approach does remind you that beyond kind of the scorecard, and Paris, Cuba, TPP, Iran, there is an approach embedded in the film of just how to engage the world, and how to conduct diplomacy that is available as an option to return to.
Glasser: Although, interestingly, Samantha, some people do make the argument that Trump, obviously he’s a very different person in every way than President Obama, but that he represents maybe a fun-house-mirror version of some of the themes that were struck during the Obama years, when it comes to America can’t be the hyperpower. It can’t go around solving other people’s problems. This question that you struggled with, and struggle with, not just in the last year, but throughout the administration, of where is American intervention appropriate? What does America first mean? Again, these are super different people, but here in Washington, there has been a conversation around whether there’s some odd continuity between some of the themes struck by President Obama and President Trump.
Power: Well, I think that there’s something very, very different about President Obama investing in alliances, building a hyper-charged different kind of relationship with China and with India, and then drawing on that political capital to get them to do more in the international system, than holding our allies in contempt, ripping up international treaties, showing our word means nothing, and then demanding that people do what we say.
So, I don’t see a lot of continuity. I mean, there needed to be more balance in the international order. Europeans had to get back into peacekeeping, and not expect the United States to just shoulder the load, and we pressed them to do that, and they have, and they need to do more, and—
Glasser: Right, you just didn’t say, in crude terms, pay up. You’re ripping us off.
Power: They’d have told us to pound sand if that’s how we had treated them. I mean, countries in many ways are a lot like people, like anthropomorphized versions of people. They don’t like to be held in contempt, they don’t like to be yelled at, and part of the alchemy of foreign policy is how do you make countries do what they don’t really want to do very much? And alienating the democratic publics in those countries, again, that are democracies, where those leaders need their publics to go along with them in order to be able to do things that the United Sates wants, is a surefire way to really limit what other countries can do when you’re in a bind.
So, the Trump administration, you know, there is a strand that we’ve seen through American foreign policy that they’re drawing upon, which is a kind of cafeteria-style approach to the global order, which is they go to the cafeteria, and they just want what they want. They’re going to have the apple pie and the vanilla ice cream, and that’s it. They want it, and they don’t think at all about the context in which they are going to take. And I think the Obama approach, and one, as Ben said, has been shared by many other presidents who have come before, is to think systemically about how do you put money in the bank, so that then when you go to draw money in a pinch, when you want to build a 60-country ISIS coalition, or when you want to get China to make commitments it’s never made on climate change—giving something up at an important stage of its development—you have something to draw upon.
This administration currently is just draining money from the bank, with needless insults and gratuitous steps away from things that really seem derived more from a formula of how can we do the opposite of what Barack Obama did, than even a considered, coherent approach. So, I don’t see a huge amount of continuity.
Glasser: No, I think it’s—
Rhodes: Susan, if I may, as someone who probably, you know, was in that argument a bit, if I understand the point people make that there is there some overlap it’s that Obama thought that we had kind of exhausted to a certain degree the use of military force in the Middle East. But the irony is that we drew the exact opposite conclusion from Trump, because essentially, yes, you might say there was a vein of criticism that we were overextended, that there needed to be more balance in the international order, and less American share of the burden in terms of military intervention in the Middle East.
But the lesson Obama took from that is, we needed to be everywhere. We needed to—
Glasser: And to invest in diplomacy and international institutions.
Rhodes: Invest in diplomacy, yeah. Invest in alliances, and institutions, and spread it around, and spend seven years on an Iran deal so you don’t have to get into another war. And, so, the irony is that Trump has basically—well, first of all, he hasn’t done what he said he would do. Militarily, he’s escalated every conflict he was in. But even if you take that commonality, the America first approach if that is their organizing principle, is the opposite of where Barack Obama took that lesson.
He took that lesson to what’s in the movie, which is we need to be diplomatically—we need to be in Laos and Vietnam, because that’s how we’re going to have to deal with China, not we’re going to retreat from TPP and get out of Asia.
Glasser: Right, the word “diplomacy” appears so many times in this, and that’s one of the biggest ironies, I think, in the context of the world we’re living in right now. So, in the movie—Greg and I were just talking before we started our podcast—the filmmaker—and you know, it’s like there are these two running themes, almost like a shark. You see the fin, you see the tail: it’s Trump and the fact that the election might not turn out the way you think, and Syria.
Power: With Russia as the connector of the two.
Glasser: Well, exactly. And we can talk about Russia in that context. Sergey Lavrov definitely has a few cameos in this film. But let me ask about Trump, too, because there is the question of President Obama’s record and how it will be judged, given what came afterwards. Ben, there’s this very memorable moment where you’re asked—I think you’re first asked about him in May, in this film, and then in September. And you say, basically, “I’m certain he won’t win.” That’s the first thing, and then the second one is, “I’ve never even entertained the possibility of him winning.” And this is in September of 2016, when the polls are starting to show actually that he’s closing against Hillary Clinton. Do you think that the inability of all of us, not just you guys personally, to see and to understand that Trump was certainly within striking distance and could win the election, is part of what dictated the outcome?
Rhodes: No. I mean, even when I’m saying that, my face isn’t quite as confident as my words. There’s a bit of a fear—I mean, look, I’ll be—yeah, I did not think he was going to win. But when I look back on this, and wrestle with this, I mean, I personally feel like Trump didn’t appear out of thin air; that, as someone who went through the 10 years, there was this vein—you know, Sarah Palin, tea party, birtherism. There was this kind of vein in our politics, like when Samantha and I were on the campaign together, the very beginning of the buddy movie, it was forwarded emails. It was actually a problem for the campaign in 2008.
We’d hear that we have to write responses to forwarded emails about how Barack Obama is secretly Muslim, or a terrorist, or Kenyan. And that became the Republican nominee by 2015, ’16. And yeah, I guess I—I certainly thought that it was hard when—in foreign policy, you spend so much time thinking about other countries that you can forget that the most important thing is our own country. In other words, we’re scrambling the last year to kind of protect and build upon and burnish—get the Paris agreement enforced, get other countries to come into Paris.
We can’t think as foreign policy makers about how do we keep our own country in Paris. And it was a lesson. The election was a reminder that there’s no more important element of our foreign policy than who we are at home. And I don’t know what that means we could have done differently in retrospect, but it does suggest that—I often was seen—was I—I was kind of a bit on the political side of things, too, and so people would say, well, is that bad, someone should be wholly pure in foreign policy?
But the reality is that if you don’t have your politics right, your foreign policy legacy is not going to be protected because you need to win elections. So, again, I think that what we’re all being reminded is, whether you’re a foreign policy practitioner, or someone who cares about issues around the world, that all begins with who we are at home, and how we organize ourselves politically, how we organize our communities, and who we elect as leaders. Because you can have all the best ideas in the world generated at a university or a think tank, but without the right people making decisions, that’s not going to matter.
Power: And the exchange that Ben and I have in the film over the General Assembly speech.
Glasser: Yes, I want to get to that. That really is the—
Power: Is pretty interesting now, in light of what has happened, because the essence of our argument, in which President Obama was in, as well, on Ben’s side of the argument, and so thus, the prevailing side of the argument, alas. But—was to sort of address the skeptics of globalization, the people—but also the declinists, and to point to everything in the world that was trending in a positive way.
Glasser: So, Obama makes this very, upbeat, positive—
Power: It ends up balanced, but—
Glasser: But then, you even, in your description of this internal debate that you had over the speech, and you acknowledged in a way that Samantha’s position was maybe more in tune with the times, as they turned out to be. You said, “She,” meaning Samantha, “felt like that was potentially discordant with the mood.”
Rhodes: One of the points I made to Samantha recently, that actually is probably part of what Obama was trying to achieve, is that yes, there are huge challenges, there’s 65 million people who are displaced, there’s horrific conflicts like in Syria, but the global metrics—and this was just recently affirmed—poverty rates are at their lowest, and life expectancy is at their highest—that how do you meet the reality—the negative reality in the world—without actually becoming Donald Trump?
You know, in other words, you can overstate the troubles in the world in a way that actually suit the Trumps of the world, because if everything is American carnage, and this is the worst time ever, and it’s never been worse, if you succumb to that mindset, and I’m not suggesting that’s what Samantha was saying, I’m suggesting that that’s a trap that Obama was trying to avoid. If I’m up here saying everything is so terrible, well, I’m actually delivering Donald Trump’s message, and I don’t need to remind people.
You know what? These are big challenges; we have to deal with them, but we’re dealing with them in the context where globalization is doing extraordinary things, in United States and around the world, to help people and raise standards of living. And we went through this, Susan, throughout the administration, where—like on terrorism, Obama constantly was trying to right-size terrorism in our national mindset, and basically convey this is a huge problem, but ISIS is not an existential threat to America.
Like, they’re not going to take over. If we become so fearful, we’ll have Muslim bans, and we will get into wars that we don’t need to get into.
Glasser: So, from your point of view, actually, what’s happened over the last year essentially vindicates the Obama argument that you can’t buy into the narrative because that helps to create it. But your point, Samantha, was a different one, which I found very interesting. As you characterize this very interesting internal debate over the content of the president’s final speech to the United Nations General Assembly, September 2016, that’s one side of the argument that Ben’s talking about.
But you really framed it up as not in terms of politics, but that it’s not the reality I’m living in. That’s what I found very interesting. And you said something in there; I’m wondering how you feel about it today. You said, “I’m not in the same place with the president anymore, and our world views are really different right now.” And you listed sort of all these conflicts that were your reality at that moment in time.
Power: Yeah. I mean, I wasn’t actually speaking about conflicting world views, so much as I really do think where you sit is reflective of a lot of different things. And as—
Rhodes: If I was at the U.N., I’d probably be making your argument.
Rhodes: Or it’s closer to it, maybe.
Power: The inbox was a daunting one, in terms of the amount of conflict, and the sense that the countries that comprised our global order such as it is weren’t stepping up, and that states were getting weaker, not stronger, and that a lot of these development numbers are accounted for by a couple very big countries that pull a lot of people out of poverty. But that we were having a hard time wrestling to ground a set of problems, and that there was a feeling of a kind of—that the rules were mattering less rather than more.
And whether that’s because Russia invades Ukraine or bombs the daylights out of civilians in Aleppo, or because countries were turning away refugees at their doorsteps, not feeling as if they even needed to be a part of European rules that had benefited them over the 20th—just a sense of kind of decay, a little bit. And even me flying commercial as I did, by and large, as U.N. ambassador with my kids, in the time of ISIS, seeing—hearing people talk about the fear, and even myself saying, “Okay, are our planes safe enough?” I think I internalized the fear that I felt around me, and wondered consistently, and Ben and I—we’ve all struggled with this, how do we speak to that fear?
You know, I went to West Africa at the height of the Ebola epidemic at President Obama’s request, and I went in to show that we had nothing to be afraid of, that if we just abided by the protocols that we could help these people, that we’d end the epidemic, and that that would be good for the United States. When I got back, I learned months after I got back, in fact, that my son’s classmates’ parents had gone to the head of the school—and my son went to the most international school in the city of New York—and had asked that my son not be allowed to attend school because his mom had gone to West Africa.
And pretty much everyone at the school worked for the United Nations or some aid organization. So, I’m in a world where even though we’re the ones who have, in principle, anyway, faced our fears and gone into war zones and other things. But where that fear creeps in, and even though there was that great line that more Americans had married Kardashians than had died of Ebola, we, as Obama formulated his response to the Ebola epidemic, we had to find a way to talk about our response in a manner that spoke to what people were fearing.
And so, flash-forward a couple years to our last General Assembly speech, I think our back and forth was a little bit: How do we meet people where they are, with that fear that we know that has been generated, in part by lies, and by our politics, but in part by actual legitimate fear and events, and how do we meet them where they are without indulging that fear, and without giving into that cynicism, and that darkness?
And if you look at the average Trump voter, clearly we see now that there’s a base of his support that is not going to go anywhere, and that wants to stoke fears, and that are almost impermeable and can’t be reached with facts. But there were a lot of people who voted for Donald Trump that, certainly as we think about the next election, we have to think about how to reach—
Glasser: And there were people who voted for Barack Obama, who, in the end voted for Trump. Those were people who were your voters. But this is a very abstract conversation, because the words you use in the U.N. General Assembly speech were big and sweeping. Some of the conflicts in the administration were very real and very practical, especially on the question of Syria. And that comes up throughout this—not only the final year, but before that. Which reflects the push and pull between idealism and realism or pragmatism. I’m curious whether, with the benefit of hindsight right now, either of you have changed your views? Or you feel that the administration missed things along the way, that it was harder to talk about then than it is now?
Rhodes: Well, I mean, my views changed during the administration, over the course of the administration. And let me just say at the beginning of any discussion on Syria, I think we often acknowledge nobody has 100 percent certainty that they have the right answer here, given the complexity of the issue, and the range of options that we were looking at. I do think that what I was trying to speak to a bit in the film is I had been an advocate for military action in Syria, very early, and I was kind of oriented in that direction.
And part of it was a pragmatic point about when does military intervention work? And the point I make in the film is that Obama kind of tested in his mind, and frankly, in the congressional authorization debate in ’12 and ’13 is, can I create conditions where military intervention can succeed? And if I don’t have congressional support, and I don’t have international support, and I don’t have anybody giving me a plan that I can see working, how can I, in confidence, take the step of getting us into what could be a very costly and difficult war?
And so, part of that is that pragmatic function of it’s not just a question of whether to go in, it’s how will we do this? And if I’m going to do something that big as a president, do I have the conditions to make sure that that can work? The other point, though, that the film does interestingly is that, you know, I felt like I had to learn from my own—the experience I’ve looked at. And I frankly—I didn’t see us, if I looked at Iraq and Afghanistan, I didn’t see the capacity of the U.S. military to—I saw the capacity of the U.S. military to take out terrorists, and to take out a target.
But to influence events inside of countries riven by sectarian division, and questions about the role of Islam in politics, and with external proxy forces, I didn’t see how there was an evidentiary record that that had worked.
Glasser: So was it a mistake to stay in Afghanistan? Look at the Groundhog Day quality of—
Rhodes: I will say—yes. In other words, I have to be—I have to apply that lesson to everything, and I feel like there are diminishing returns about what we are accomplishing in Afghanistan. And at a certain point, when—
Glasser: They asked President Trump to essentially make a very similar—
Rhodes: Well, and you know, he escalated in a way that is—didn’t seem big, but does basically mean that we’re just going to stay at a slowly escalated place indefinitely. And the cost, and lives, and also just the fact that is that working for Afghanistan? Because I know the case that people could make, if we leave, X will happen. But if we stay, Y is happening.
It’s not getting better. The corruption, and the kind of nihilism in parts of the country, so all that is to say, I thought what the film did an interesting job of is kind of airing that there were different views earnestly held. People with good motivations, people trying to make moral choices can come to different conclusions. Greg also layered in that we were dealing with the legacy of U.S. interventions in Vietnam and Laos, where the cost of us saying, “We need to bomb a country for our own credibility,” is 40 years later, we’ve got 2 million unexploded ordinances in Laos.
So, it drew it out interestingly, but I also think it also, obviously, pointed to the extreme humanitarian catastrophe and geopolitical catastrophe of Syria, and kind of the way in which we were out of options at the end of the administration. It’s clearly not a satisfactory place to be, but I’ll—
Glasser: So, Trump would say, “Well, we’ve defeated ISIS in my presidency, and you guys were tied up in your own fights and didn’t do it.”
Power: We—when we articulated our plan to defeat ISIS, we were very clear on the timeframe, and it’s actually really remarkable—
Rhodes: Exactly on that timeline.
Power: Extent to which the timeframe has held—Ben was out in public struggling to defend. It’s very rare, right, that the United States—we never do that. We don’t come out and say, “We will win this, on this date.”
Glasser: Right, and actually Trump critiqued that, remember? He was always saying in the debates and stuff, “These guys are crazy. They’re signaling their hands.”
Rhodes: He said, “We’re going to do Ramadi. We’re going to do—”
Power: It was very methodical.
Rhodes: It actually happened on schedule.
Power: And it’s a credit, above all, and this is true in our administration, and in the Trump administration, to Chairman Dempsey, Chairman Dunford, and the soldiers who are out there training Iraqi forces thanklessly, in these remote bases, supporting them with air Power. So, it’s extremely—it’s a very good thing that the caliphate is no more. What I worry about today is that when we were sitting in the Situation Room, it was always our military that was the most vocal about, “Okay, where’s the money for de-mining? Where’s the governance pressure?”
Initially on Maliki, then on Abadi in Iraq, to be bringing in the Sunnis, and to be ensuring that we’re doing away with the virus that gave rise to ISIS in the first place. Where is the respect for human rights? Where are the processes for accountability, so you can distinguish real ISIS people from ordinary Sunni who got caught up in a firefight? And it was our military in the Situation Room that was saying, “We can do our part, we can take territory. We know how to do that. We can kill bad guys; we know how to do that.” But where are the other lines of effort?
Glasser: Where is the political process?
Power: And I don’t hear anything out of this administration. John Kerry and Joe Biden were on the phone every day with Abadi, trying to get the political equation right, trying to reverse de-Baathification, all those years later after George W. Bush, so that Sunnis felt welcome, so that there wouldn’t be just more fertile soil for some future demagogue to come along and stoke people up.
But that’s the problem with gutting your State Department. That’s the problem with not having allies, is that you can’t go, tin cup in hand, and get all those other countries to take on different slices of the post-caliphate Iraq. And that’s the problem with putting no energy behind bringing peace to Syria. I mean, one of the things that I don’t think we have—our record on Syria isn’t anything that any of us are particularly proud of, but when you see in this film that, notwithstanding the fact that nothing came out of it, the effort of Secretary Kerry—there’s scenes in the film where he can barely walk up the stairs with fatigue, because he has been so busy shuttling from one place to the other, trying to get the Iranians and the Russians and the Europeans and everybody on the same page.
Can anybody articulate what our current Secretary of State is trying to achieve in the world, beyond the number of jobs he’s trying to cut at the State Department? I have no idea. And I think the film, you could say it’s a film about diplomacy; you could say it’s a film that’s a time capsule about Obama, but I think it’s a film about caring, frankly, about what’s going on around you in your life, and in the world, and in your community, and in the world, and trying.
And not always getting right. Syria is the best example of that. But the integrity of the effort, and the relative—I know it sounds saccharine, but the relative purity of the motive for all of the differences among us, and how to get things done, it’s about trying to bring peace and make the world more stable.
Glasser: Well, it’s definitely a very—it comes across as a very earnest, or you know, sort of transparent debate among people who were disagreeing on issues of principle, but there’s nowhere paradoxically in the world where Trump has been received more positively by the leadership in the region, than the Middle East. That’s been the thing for any journalist who’s talking to people over the last year. So, what do you make of that? There’s not a lot of Israel and Palestine in this, for example. There’s not a lot of Saudis, but they cheered.
Rhodes: Well, I’m troubled by it. Look, some of the things that have happened this year, interestingly, were things that we were trying to forestall. In other words, the break with Qatar, we basically had to spend a lot of time trying to prevent that from happening. The Yemen conflict, we spent a lot of time tapping the brakes and putting a halt on cooperation, on sort of transfers of certain weapons, and now, it’s just open season in Yemen. And what you’re seeing is a huge humanitarian crisis.
We tried to keep the Saudi-Iranian proxy conflict from completely overwhelming the whole region, and so my concern is that even though we are partners with the Saudis and the Emirates, that doesn’t mean our interests are always entirely aligned. And basically, what I see is an administration that has subcontracted out the view of regional conflicts in the Middle East, to Mohammad bin Salman, and I don’t think that leads in the right direction. I think it leads to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, it leads to kind of this dysfunctionality in the GCC with Qatar, it leads to doubling down on support for Sisi and the anti-democratic course in Egypt.
And on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, I think it leads to, potentially, like the situation where a Palestinian state is unrecognizable because of settlement activity and kind of just despairing on both sides. So, we—I recognize you’re right. I mean, the only place in the world where I think leaders have preferred Trump are in Riyadh, in Saudi Arabia and Israel. But—
Glasser: And Russia.
Rhodes: And Russia, importantly.
Glasser: Interestingly, actually, there’s a scene where you say a long-time critique that you had of the Washington foreign policy establishment, you say—we’ve all heard you say this before, too; it’s not new to this film — that to the Blob, Russia and the Middle East are basically the sum total of foreign policy, and if we’re really going to have a global foreign policy, we need to be much more global. We need to think about Asia.
But in a way, Russia and the Middle East remain at the heart of these problems. First of all, how do you feel about the Washington foreign policy establishment now? They’ve been pretty resistant, even Republicans, to Trump, far more so than other parts of DC. Is that just because they see Trump as anti-interventionist? Or have they changed your view?
Rhodes: No. So, let me say a couple things. First of all, the strategic consequences of leaving TPP, I think, are massive. When I think of the things that Trump has done, ironically, everything is sort of—we care so much about Cuba and the Iran deal. I think pulling out of TPP is just devastating. I think the Chinese have just a wide-open field in Asia now, and they’re doing their One Belt and One Road Initiative, and they’re setting the agenda. So, I stand by the notion that it doesn’t mean Russia and the Middle East aren’t important, but it does mean that there has to be a bandwidth, a discipline about having bandwidth that you dedicate to Asia and to Latin America and to Africa.
What’s interesting about the foreign policy establishment critique is, you know, I think the Blob and I have more in common in some ways than people might think, but also, what I was saying can be misread. I was making a very specific point about the use of military force in the Middle East, and that there was something—there was a vein of groupthink that somehow led to a narrowing of options to, you show you care about something, or show your credibility by using military force.
And I’m saying that in year seven or year eight of an administration, where I’ve seen us use force in Yemen, in Libya, in Iraq, in Afghanistan. No shortage of it, and yet, the critique is always why aren’t you doing more in that space? On Syria, for instance, one of the things I wrestle with is it’s always framed as should we have used force, or should we have armed people? Well, was there a diplomatic option that we missed in 2011, 2012? Could we have constructed something? Could we have worked that more aggressively at the outset?
So, that’s my critique. The flipside of that is—
Glasser: But I just have to interrupt. But do you feel like the critique overall of the establishment, does it look a little bit different now that we have something so out of the box?
Rhodes: Well, yes, but that goes in both directions. I mean, I remember, Susan, because we were seen as just way outside the box—these huge breaks from—I mean, I can turn that inside-out and say, some people were acting like—and there’s voiceovers in the film that I actually enjoy hearing. It’s like, “This is the end of the world, and the west,” and it’s like, we’re actually much closer to each other on the spectrum than to Trump.
I mean, we’re all in this spectrum of we believe—
Glasser: That’s exactly the point I’m making.
Rhodes: So, I agree.
Glasser: It turned out, when you’re in the box, actually, you might think one end of the box is really far away from the other box, but now it turned out you were all in the box.
Rhodes: We’re all for the liberal international order.
Glasser: And the Bush administration that you came to office seeing yourself as a repudiation of—
Rhodes: Well, I would continue to say that the Iraq war was way outside the box. I don’t think that was in the box—but I do think that some of the debates in ’17, by the time we got to—sorry, 2015, 2016, it was like we weren’t as far away—I mean, I’m making a specific point about military force in the Middle East, but we’re all for the liberal international order.
And actually, I heard—I’ve seen some Blob commentary, “Well, the Blob is what built the liberal international order,” and I’m like, I’m for that. I’m all for people who are underpinning the international order. I’m not for bleeding that down in wars in the Middle East. But I think I’m totally in agreement with the premise that we were not as far away from them—we wanted to uphold that system, we just had some different ideas about how to prioritize in doing that.
Power: But we now have wings of both parties that—and certainly a wing of the Democratic Party, that likes tearing up the universe of the world, and so, we do have—
Rhodes: Well, TPP was equally loathed by—
Rhodes: Wings of both—
Power: And as China puts together its 14-country trade pact, and as it’s the very people who are hostile to the trade agenda that we put forward, who will pay the price, ultimately, for China’s rise, and for these changes.
Glasser: Obviously, this is just a snippet of all the issues that you were encountering over the last year. But from the vantage point of 2018, there’s no discussion really of North Korea, for example. Russia appears as this point of conflict over Syria, but there’s no mention of the election hacking, or the overall dilemma of whether and how to accommodate itself to Russia. President Obama’s own arc of going from the reset to such a distance with President Putin that they weren’t really even on speaking terms by the end.
So, as you look at it now, are there a couple things that you say, “Well, I wish we would have done them differently at the end, if we’d known that Trump was going to win? Would we have done these two things differently?”
Power: Well, I would have ended our involvement in the war in Yemen, for starters. I think we—as Ben said, we tried to put the brakes on in different ways. We tried to use our leverage, but at a certain point, probably by midway through 2016, we should have recognized that our leverage was not sufficient to bring about the kind of change that we needed. Now, we still would have needed to defend against threats across international borders.
We still are—need a strategy to contest Iranian aggression in the region, which was playing itself out in Yemen. But to be complicit in this way, and then when Trump takes over, he just dramatically increases the level of involvement now, notwithstanding the loss of so many lives. So that’s one example.
I think that one thing that actually sort of surprises me and a little bit in a pleasing way about the last year is, we could have—because we did not think that Trump would win—we could have let the Paris agreement sort of come into force at its own pace. And one of the things that the film doesn’t really capture, but that I think is amazing is in retrospect, is that President Obama insisted we wage a full-court press, basically the equivalent of a full-on campaign in order to bring the treaty into force. Kyoto took nine years to bring into force.
We brought it in between December of 2015, and then before the November election, so that means that that’s an example of a piece of the infrastructure that was built in the international order, that while American can leave it—
Glasser: That’s harder to dismantle.
Power: Well, he can’t. I mean, America can leave, but China, India, all the other countries are still on the hook.
Glasser: Okay, what about Russia, though? I’ve got to ask about this. Do either of you feel any responsibility—again, hindsight is 20/20, but do you feel that it was a mistake, in hindsight, not to have been more proactive and forceful in laying out your evidence around Russia and the hacking?
Rhodes: I mean, it’s hard for—Sam and I actually really weren’t in the heart of the decision-making process on that. And I don’t mean that—
Glasser: That makes it easier for you to criticize it.
Rhodes: Well, yeah. No way. I mean, I guess first of all, we thought when we made that statement October 7th that it would be this really big deal. The judgment of the whole U.S. intelligence community, the Russians meddling, and the Access Hollywood tape came out that night, and oh, gee, by coincidence, the Podesta emails started to leak that night, and it just kind of got subsumed.
I guess when I look back on it, I’ll kind of frame this the way I did Syria. Everybody focuses on should Obama have said more. I really do believe that if Obama is just out there talking about this more, then Trump just says, “This is rigged,” and it’s a he said-she said thing. And I don’t—I think it assumes too much capacity by the U.S. government to affect kind of how information is consumed.
I think that we could have—because the biggest problem was the sharing of fake news. And we can’t go on everybody’s Facebook page and say, “Actually, you’re reading something created by a Russian bot.” I do think if you look at the arc of it, you could see Russia developing this capacity in Ukraine, and using it to disseminate fake news. I spent a lot of—
Glasser: Including against the United States and its diplomats.
Rhodes: Yeah, and I spent a lot of my time in ’14 and ’15 in the information space, wrestling with that from a foreign policy perspective, like how do we work with Europeans to prevent the Baltics from succumbing to Russian information operations? And the conversation that had to happen, and that still has to happen with the tech sector—with Facebook and with news platforms, I think we were having that conversation on ISIS, but—and I do think that so much of this is outside of—what people don’t understand is so much of this is outside of the control of the government.
We can’t stop this information from being shared online. There’s not a U.S. government response that can say—we could say it’s happening, but we can’t block certain Twitter bots and news sources. And so, what needs to happen is a real dialogue between the U.S. government and Facebook and Twitter and other tech platforms about how to deal with this. We had that conversation about terrorism, because it’s been going on for ten years.
That conversation could have started earlier. I don’t know if that would have made a difference. So, that is something I think about. The only other thing I’d say is on TPP, the timing, we just missed it. It just slipped too far to the right, and by the time that was ready to be presented to Congress, Donald Trump was shaping the Republican primary, and we weren’t going to get a vote. And so, we were hoping we’ll get that in a lame duck if Hillary wins, and try to figure something out.
Given the importance that I was talking about, I think having more of an accelerant on that effort could have potentially protected that. So, yeah.
Glasser: So, Samantha, just quickly on Russia, your view about whether there could have been more done?
Power: Because, I think, the damage being done now to everything that matters to my children, and their eventual children, is so great, I—my personality is such that of course I think—I mean, if we knew then that not only that Trump would win, with all kinds of nudges of support from the Russian government, but also that he would then do the set of things that he has done as president, that’s so damaging to the interests of the American people, I think we’d have to ask ourselves what more could we do.
I think Ben’s point is a really important one, is what were the things upstream, well before the very specific understanding of meddling in the United States, and the very specific understanding of the information warfare and the leaking of emails and stuff associated with the campaign? But was there a two-year plan, where we went all-in on the kind of conversations that are happening now, frankly, that I don’t think the administration is initiating, but that are getting initiated by public demand, with Facebook, with Twitter—
Glasser: Right, in the end. Putin invaded Crimea in 2014.
Power: I never even understood—or I don’t even think I’d heard the phrase in the modern context ‘fake news,’ until after fake news had already had the kind of impact that we know that it had—I think it was President Obama, in fact, at a press conference where I was like, fake news, hmm. So, even when we were having the debates internally about what to do, I think we were very focused on the leaking, the cyber dimension of it—
Rhodes: It was the cyber issues.
Power: But the lying, and the way in which the lies were permeating, and the reach—
Glasser: The propaganda nature.
Rhodes: The information operation.
Power: The reach of those lies, I think if we knew then what we know now, we would have at least been—
Rhodes: And we didn’t know. The fact is we didn’t see that scale until after the election.
Glasser: So, we could have this conversation literally on and on, which would be great, and I hope you’ll come back, and we can talk about Syria, we can do a Russia episode, but I’m very grateful to both of you for sharing this time with us. President Obama, should he be speaking out more right now? I’m sure this is what everybody wants to know from you, but where is he? Why isn’t he speaking out?
Rhodes: You know, I think that, as a former president, he still abides by norms. I mean, that’s who he is. He’s the person who’s going to live the norms. So, he’s respectful of that. He’s speaking out sparingly when certain lines are crossed or certain kind of foundational things like healthcare are threatened. But also, I think he takes a very long view of history, and he’s got 30 years ahead of him, and he’ll have to speak out at certain points, and if he goes into the news cycle and the kind of knife fight, it actually kind of diminishes him when he does speak out.
So, I think he is mindful of the fact that he’s not playing in two- and four-year increments anymore. He’s someone who is relatively young, and so therefore has decades of hopefully some influence on debates, and in a way, the less he speaks, the more it will matter when he does.
Glasser: I want to thank both of you. When are your books coming out?
Power: Oh, don’t ask.
Glasser: I have one that I haven’t written either.
Glasser: But the movie is coming out next week.
Rhodes: Yes, next week.
Glasser: The Final Year, and it really is worth watching, and this has been a great conversation. Ben Rhodes, Samantha Power, and thank you of course to our listeners on The Global POLITICO. I think having a great audience as well as great guests is the reason we were named the best politics podcast of 2017, so I want to thank all of you for listening. And you can always email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. And thanks again to Samantha Power and Ben Rhodes.
Rhodes: Thank you.
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