The Atlantic

July 12, 2022

Why No One Believes American Rhetoric About Democracy

American foreign policy often highlights the gap between the values-based story that the United States tells about itself and the reality of how a superpower pursues its interests. The size of that gap will be impossible to straddle when President Joe Biden travels to Saudi Arabia to repair his relationship with the kingdom’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

Biden is by no means the first American president who has struggled to reconcile a declared commitment to human rights with a more utilitarian definition of American interests. George W. Bush enlisted Saudi Arabia as an ally in the War on Terror even though 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers came from Saudi Arabia, the wellspring of the Wahhabism that helped create the conditions for the attacks.

The New York Times

March 12, 2022

Ukraine War Ushers In ‘New Era’ for U.S. Abroad

The war in Ukraine has prompted the biggest rethinking of American foreign policy since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, infusing the United States with a new sense of mission and changing its strategic calculus with allies and adversaries alike. The Russian invasion has bonded America to Europe more tightly than at any time since the Cold War and deepened U.S. ties with Asian allies, while forcing a reassessment of rivals like China, Iran and Venezuela. And it has re-energized Washington’s leadership role in the democratic world just months after the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan ended 20 years of conflict on a dismal note.

The Atlantic

March 13, 2022

We Have Reached a Hinge of History

Europe’s largest invasion since World War II is a logical outcome of Vladimir Putin’s dominance of Russian politics in the 21st century, a reminder that grievance-based ethno-nationalism and authoritarianism lead inexorably to conflict. Putin’s efforts to reconstitute empire and “protect” Russian speakers beyond national borders tap into currents of history running deep underneath our collective experience. And in many ways, the tolls of the war—cities reduced to rubble, civilians caught amid armies, refugees moving en masse across European borders, threats of nuclear annihilation—recall the circumstances that shocked world powers into creating an international system to prevent another world war. Perhaps it is no coincidence that at precisely the time when living memory of World War II is fading away, humanity has failed to heed the lessons of our worst history.

The Atlantic

January 28, 2022

This Is No Time for Passive Patriotism

Every nation is a story. It’s almost never a simple one, and the story’s meaning is usually contested. National identity itself depends upon how we tell the story—about our past, our present moment, and our future.

Many national stories are rooted in a particular ethnicity or religion that forms the core of that national identity. Here in the United States, things are more complicated. Since our founding, our national identity has been the story that we tell ourselves and the wider world.

Foreign Affairs

October 07, 2021

Them and Us: How America Lets Its Enemies Hijack Its Foreign Policy

No twenty-first-century event has shaped the United States and its role in the world as much as 9/11. The attacks pierced the complacency of the post–Cold War decade and shattered the illusion that history was ending with the triumph of American-led globalization. The scale of the U.S. response remade American government, foreign policy, politics, and society in ways that continue to generate aftershocks. Only by interrogating the excesses of that response can Americans understand what their country has become and where it needs to go...

the Guardian

September 10, 2021

After 20 years, Biden’s Afghanistan withdrawal has finally ended the 9/11 era

Foreign policy, for better or worse, is always an extension of a nation’s domestic politics. The arc of America’s war in Afghanistan is a testament to this reality – the story of a superpower that overreached, slowly came to terms with the limits of its capacity to shape events abroad, and withdrew in the wake of raging dysfunction at home. Viewed through this prism, President Joe Biden’s decisive yet chaotic withdrawal comes into focus...

May 30, 2021

The War on Terror hasn’t made us safer – but the US and UK withdrawal from Afghanistan is risky

I worked in the White House for eight years under President Barack Obama. During that time, I became chillingly familiar with the ways that America has learned to kill people since 9/11. It has spanned several countries, with conventional wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a mix of drones, special operations and air power from South Asia to North Africa.

After a cruise missile strike in Yemen, monitored through aerial imagery, one general used a term to refer to the tiny images of people fleeing the scene of an explosion: “squirters”. The word stuck in my head...

The Atlantic

May 26, 2021

Then She Asked Me About Benghazi

In the winter of 2018, I drove out to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, to finish writing my White House memoir. The town is built on a hill that descends to the junction of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers, ringed by mountains. A railroad bridge over the rivers, the brick buildings, and the church steeples give the place the feel of 19th-century America, a landscape that you might glimpse in a painting hung in the American wing of an art museum. This is also, of course, the place where the Civil War began; where the radical abolitionist John Brown seized the local arsenal in the hopes of sparking a mass uprising of enslaved people; and where Brown was detained by forces led by Colonel Robert E. Lee—he would later be hanged for his crimes under the watchful eyes of a young spectator named John Wilkes Booth. A quiet American place filled with American ghosts...

Foreign Affairs

November 10, 2020

The Democratic Renewal

If elected president, Joe Biden will inherit a United States that has abdicated its leadership role in the world and lost its claim to moral authority. He will also take the reins of a country still in the throes of a pandemic, still reeling from the economic fallout of the novel coronavirus, and still deeply polarized. This wreckage will exceed even President Barack Obama’s inheritance of a financial crisis and two foundering wars. Biden and his team will have to find some way to reshape U.S. foreign policy and revive the United States’ sense of its purpose in the world...

Washington Post

September 25, 2020

McMaster’s memoir is heavy on history, but light on Trump

In February 2017, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster was on his way to a think tank in Philadelphia when he received a call inviting him down to Mar-a-Lago for a job interview with President Trump. For the next 14 months, McMaster held one of the most important positions in America’s national security apparatus, where he brought a historian’s eye and an officer’s sense of duty to the challenges of a world being reordered, in part by the fact of his boss’s presidency. An unnatural fit in the drama-filled and politically obsessed Trump White House, McMaster was out by the following April, and returned to the world of academia and analysis that he clearly relishes...

The Atlantic

June 15, 2020

The Path to Autocracy

Over the past decade, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz Party have transformed a democracy into something close to an autocracy. Shortly after his first reelection in 2014, Orbán gave a speech outlining his political project. Citing globalization’s economic and social failures, Orbán defended the course he had set by noting that those nations best prepared for the future were “not liberal, not liberal democracies, maybe not even democracies.” Drawing on that message, he defined a form of regime change. “The Hungarian,” he said, “is not a simple sum of individuals, but a community that needs to be organized, strengthened, and developed, and in this sense, the new state that we are building is an illiberal state, a non-liberal state...”

The Atlantic

April 06, 2020

The 9/11 Era Is Over

In a large windowless room in the bowels of the CIA, there is a sign that reads every day is september 12th. When I first saw those words, during a tour of the agency’s operations, I felt conflicted. As a New Yorker who witnessed the 9/11 attacks, I once felt that way myself, but by the time I saw the sign, during the second term of the Obama administration, it seemed to ignore all the things that our country had gotten wrong because of that mindset. Now, as COVID-19 has transformed the way that Americans live, and threatens to claim exponentially more lives than any terrorist has, it is time to finally end the chapter of our history that began on September 11, 2001...

The Atlantic

March 13, 2020

How Trump Designed His White House to Fail

President Donald Trump failed the defining test of his presidency in his Oval Office address on the coronavirus. He turned to a format meant to calm the nation, provide clarity, and offer a clear plan of action, but accomplished none of those things. On the contrary, he left Americans more anxious, more confused, and looking elsewhere for a plan.

To understand how we got here and where we’re headed, it’s important to understand how presidents manage information in the White House. The West Wing is by nature an isolating place. When I first went to work there, at the beginning of the administration of Barack Obama, I was struck by how small it was—a handful of offices on three floors; a few dozen people bearing enormous responsibilities...

The Atlantic

January 05, 2020

An Extraordinarily Dangerous Moment

On a November night in 2013, Barack Obama delivered a statement about an interim nuclear deal that had just been reached, freezing Iran’s program in place. When he was done, I walked with him back to the entrance of his residence, watched by the stoic portraits of former presidents. “Congratulations,” I said. “You just made sure that we won’t have a war with Iran during your presidency.”

“That’s probably true,” he said, considering the question. “But I want to make sure that the next president doesn’t have to go to war either...”

The Atlantic

August 08, 2019

What Happened to Aung San Suu Kyi?

The first time I met Aung San Suu Kyi, she embodied hope. It was November 2012, and we were in her weathered house at 54 University Avenue, in Yangon, where she’d been held prisoner by the ruling Burmese junta for the better part of two decades. She sat at a small, round table with Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Derek Mitchell, who had recently been named the first U.S. ambassador to Myanmar in more than 20 years. At 67, Suu Kyi was poised and striking, a flower tucked into her long black hair, which was streaked with gray. Looking up at the worn books on the shelves behind her, I imagined the hours she must have spent reading them in enforced solitude. A picture of Mahatma Gandhi looked down with a serene smile...

Explore Parts Unknown

October 25, 2018

Why Obama wanted to sit down with Anthony Bourdain

One of the most powerful things about the episode of Parts Unknown featuring Barack Obama is that Anthony Bourdain treats him like any other guest. Obama doesn’t appear until 30 minutes into the program after Bourdain has dined with several ordinary Vietnamese people. Even though they talked together for nearly an hour, only about 10 minutes of conversation make it into the show. The message, to me, was clear: Everyone’s story is of equal value...

The New York Times

August 31, 2018

We Are Not a ‘Cabal,’ Just Critics of Trump

During the preparation for his second 2012 debate with Mitt Romney, I had to walk President Barack Obama through the conspiracy theories about the Benghazi attacks so he’d be ready for them: that he issued a “stand-down” order, for instance, to deny military assistance, or that we’d watched the attacks unfold in the White House via a drone feed. He didn’t believe me at first — unlike the current occupant of the Oval Office, he rarely watched cable news. “I’m serious,” I said. “It’s all over Fox.” Obama shook his head: “That’s some real tin-hat stuff.”

The Atlantic

June 03, 2018

Inside the White House During the Syrian 'Red Line' Crisis

In the course of a presidency, a U.S. president says millions of words in public. You never know which of them end up cementing a certain impression. For Barack Obama, one of those phrases would be “red line.”

In August 2012, Obama was asked about what could lead him to use military force in Syria. “We have been very clear to the Assad regime,” he said, “that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized...

Crooked Media

December 14, 2017

The Trump Doctrine: America Last

With each successive foreign policy announcement, President Trump panders to a narrow domestic political constituency. His decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was no different. But while many have analyzed the potential geopolitical damage this move could do in the Middle East, there has been less focus on the larger costs of conducting international affairs in such a venal way, including a collapse of confidence in America’s capacity to honor agreements, uphold norms, and function rationally as a superpower...

Crooked Media

December 07, 2017

Unmasking Trump's Iran Plan

President Donald Trump is preparing to take a dishonest and unnecessary step that will isolate the United States and could lead to war. He is doing this at a moment when his administration is in disarray, the world is recoiling from U.S. leadership, and we are sinking deeper into a nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula. The issue at stake is the so-called Iran deal, known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), under which the world’s leading powers enforce limitations on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for some sanctions relief...

The Atlantic

June 16, 2017

Trump's Cuba Policy Will Fail

One of the most depressing things about President Donald Trump’s decision to roll back elements of the Cuba opening is how predictable it was. A Republican candidate for president makes last-minute campaign promises to a hard-line Cuban American audience in South Florida. Senator Marco Rubio and Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart hold him to those promises. The U.S. government announces changes that will hurt ordinary Cubans, harm the image of the United States, and make it harder for Americans to do business and travel somewhere they want to go...

Ben Rhodes is a writer, political commentator, and national security analyst. He is the author of the New York Times bestsellers “After the Fall: Being American in the World We’ve Made,” and “The World As It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House.” He is currently co-host of Pod Save the World; a contributor for MSNBC; a senior advisor to former President Barack Obama; and chair of National Security Action, which he co-founded with Jake Sullivan in 2018. From 2009-2017, Ben served as a speechwriter and Deputy National Security Advisor to President Obama. In that capacity, he participated in all of President Obama’s key decisions, oversaw the President’s national security communications and public diplomacy, and led the secret negotiations with the Cuban government that resulted in the effort to normalize relations between the United States and Cuba. His work has also been published in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and Foreign Affairs. A native New Yorker, Ben has a B.A. from Rice University and an M.F.A from New York University.