Close Obama adviser Ben Rhodes visits Pomona, talks 2020 and future of American leadership

Ben Rhodes, the former national security advisor for the Obama administration, is a middle-aged white man with balding hair. He sits at a table in a suite, discussing his new book, the Trump presidency and Haifa controversy. In the background is a map of the world.
Ben Rhodes, the former national security advisor for the Obama administration, spoke at Rose Hills Theater at Pomona College April 16. (Elinor Aspegren • The Student Life)

Ben Rhodes frequently receives emoji-ridden texts from former President Barack Obama, lets the occasional four-letter expletive fly and once thought he would pursue a career as a fiction writer.

For a former deputy national security advisor who led the Obama administration’s negotiations with Cuba, advised the president during the Arab Spring uprisings and wrote most of Obama’s foreign policy speeches, he’s impressively attuned to the ways of young people living in the Trump era.

“Young people sometimes don’t recognize the agency they have,” Rhodes said to a standing-room only crowd at Pomona College’s Rose Hills Theater Tuesday, at an event hosted by Pomona’s politics department. Rhodes was questioned by politics professor Mietek Boduszynski about his memoir of the Obama White House entitled “The World As It Is.”

Rhodes urged young attendees to involve themselves in campaigns and even run for public office.

“It really was a bunch of 20-somethings who changed the course of the world,” said Rhodes, discussing the key role young people played in electing Obama.

Rhodes himself was only 29 years old when he joined the Obama White House, having just completed a masters degree in creative writing and a job working as a speechwriter for former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind.

Through his instrumental role in leading the administration’s foreign negotiations, however, he became a close adviser and friend to Obama and said he was at times unable to distinguish between his own opinions on foreign policy and those of the former president.

TSL sat down with Rhodes before the event to talk about the 2020 election, shaping the narrative of the Obama White House and the controversy over Pitzer College’s study abroad program in Israel, which the school’s College Council voted to suspend in March. Its decision was vetoed by Pitzer President Melvin Oliver.

Democratic candidates for the 2020 nomination must find a way to structurally re-orient U.S. foreign policy away from constant military presence in the Middle East, Rhodes said. He believes that candidates should broaden their approach to foreign policy, involving techniques to ensure peaceful and diplomatic negotiations with foreign powers.

“That’s the direction we [in the Obama administration] were trying to set in motion, and obviously Trump has disrupted that,” Rhodes quipped.

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Rhodes advocated a less interventionist approach to foreign policy, stressing the importance of leading by example. He attributed massive U.S. military spending to “a kind of strangely frozen post-9/11 preoccupation” with terrorists abroad and emphasized the domestic concerns currently threatening American democracy.

“The best policy to promote democracy around the world,” Rhodes said, “is the health of our own democracy, and the best way to support values around tolerance and inclusion and independent media is for us to lead by example.”

Rhodes was doubtful that a 2020 Democratic victory could restore the world standing lost by the U.S.’ election of President Donald Trump.

“It’s not just the fact that Trump is our president that concerns people; it’s the fact that we elected Trump president,” Rhodes said, noting that Trump’s quick destruction of notable Obama-era foreign policy achievements has made the international community uneasy.

“If America has this kind of crazy seesaw effect in our politics where we can have years of work with other countries to reach agreements, and then a nutcase gets elected and just pulls out of them … how can we be sure that’s not going to happen again?” Rhodes asked.

With regard to Pitzer’s study abroad controversy at the University of Haifa in Israel, Rhodes said he does not support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement that opposes Israeli occupation of disputed territory. But he believes there may be untapped potential in governmental policies to pressure Israel’s government while offering direct assistance to Palestinians.

“I think it’s healthy that there is activism on campus and that there is agitation and pressure, and I don’t think it should be written off,” Rhodes said. “If people want to express themselves and oppose exchange programs, they have a right to do that. … As long as Palestinians are stateless and the occupation is looking like a permanent reality, this [agitation] is going to build.”

For Rhodes, the process of writing his book was “cathartic,” he said during the talk. While writing, Rhodes used a notebook in which he had jotted notes during his eight years at the White House.

“If America has this kind of crazy seesaw effect in our politics where we can have years of work with other countries to reach agreements, and then a nutcase gets elected and just pulls out of them … how can we be sure that’s not going to happen again?” — Ben Rhodes 

The book was an exercise in historical examination, as Rhodes began to piece together the causality of Trump’s eventual election. Birtherism, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s election rhetoric and sensational forwarded emails all were strains of Trump-like ideology that foreshadowed Trump’s formal election, according to Rhodes.

“Being an Obama person in Trump’s Washington is a bit like being under occupation,” Rhodes said during the talk. He said some of the best outcomes of the Obama presidency were the most painful to write about, as they were being undone by Trump as Rhodes completed his draft.

Over his eight years working with Obama, Rhodes learned to mix realism and idealism. As he put it: “You need to see the world as it is in order to pursue the world as it ought to be.”

Rhodes’ talk was received glowingly by faculty and students alike.

Pomona associate dean Mary Coffey said she enjoyed hearing about Rhodes’ experiences in the field.

“How often do we have the chance to talk to somebody who has been so close to the key decision makers about things that are so important in foreign policy?” Coffey asked.

Max Ober PO ’22 appreciated Rhodes’ mix of pragmatism and progressivism. He echoed Rhodes’ assertion that American foreign policy is contingent on the strength of American democracy.

“People love to separate domestic and foreign concerns, but they’re so connected,” Ober said. “Rhodes and the other Obama advisers have really set the groundwork for addressing issues with our democracy, and 2020 is really going to tell us if America is truly ready to fix all the issues we have.”

Gerardo Rodriguez PO ’22, who is in Boduszynski’s introductory foreign policy class, said Rhodes’ work to alleviate tensions between the U.S. and Cuba was particularly inspiring to him as a Cuban student.

He also was impressed by Rhodes’ proximity to Obama.

“When Obama sends you an emoji, you’ve made it in life,” Rodriguez said.

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