By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
On December 3rd former Obama administration advisor Ben Rhodes tweeted that “recent Saudi and Israeli moves raising odds of direct conflict that pulls in the US.” Rhodes served as Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications for US President Barack Obama and as an Advisor on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran, the “Iran deal.”
Rhodes was slammed in 2016 for an interview he gave that appeared to mock the American public, the expertise of the US foreign policy establishment, and the experts and commentators around them. Thomas Ricks wrote: “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.”
Whatever the critics say, Rhodes exercised influence over Obama’s foreign policy asa kind of amanuensis or Svengali. He channeled Obama’s inner demons and strategized on how to sell the Iran deal to the public. Alongside John Kerry he was a believer in shifting US foreign policy to rewrite the history of the Middle East and orient the US closer to the Iranian orbit such that Iran became a guarantor of stability in the region, rather than traditional US allies. Former Israeli ambassador to the US has described Kerry as having a “particularly acrimonious and sometimes obsessive place for us [Israel], and for the prime minister. He also thinks that the Iran nuclear deal was a historic diplomatic achievement. I personally feel that it was the collapse of American credibility in the Middle East and a significant danger to our future and the future of our children. That is a huge difference.”
The new Ben Rhodes tweet sheds light on the Obama administrations biases in the region. Obama has many ideas about the Middle East. In 2016 he had claimed the conflicts in the region were “rooted in conflicts that date back millennia.” He sought to reach out to the region, particularly Muslims, during his Cairo speech in 2009.
He wanted to reduce the US footprint and pulled American troops out of Iraq, withdrawing them in 2011. He always want Iraq to have a pro-Iranian Shia “strongman” in the form of Nouri al-Maliki. In 2010 Obama supported Maliki to be Prime Minister of Iraq, even though his party was not the largest in the country. Washington thought a powerful Shia sectarian government would provide stability. Instead it inflamed tensions and led to ISIS taking over a third of the country in 2014. The US relied on Maliki, even though he was an anti-American fanatic collaborating with Shia militias and terrorists who had targeted US troops. In an interview in 2017 Maliki even accused the US of supporting ISIS, “the US and the Obama administration were behind the creation of ISIS to expel the government.”
Rhodes was involved in these discussions about how the US viewed the Middle East. He told PBS: “We’re not going to do this by ourselves, and we’re not going to do this for the region. We’re not going to have large U.S. forces on the ground to do this. The only way that you’re going to solve this problem is if you get the countries and governments of the region invested in it.”
Rhodes was involved in encouraging the replacing of Maliki in August 2014 as ISIS was overrunning Iraq. “The White House will be very glad to see a new government in place with prime minister Abadi at the lead of that government,” Rhodes said.
He also played a role in Syria after the Arab spring erupted in 2011 and a rebellion began against the Assad regime. Rhodes told PBS: “The president was willing to get engaged in support for the opposition in Syria, but he wanted to make clear that we understood there were limits as to how we could solve this problem with our military, and that we had to be very deliberate and careful when it comes to something like providing military assistance to an opposition group.”
On Iraq and Syria Obama and Rhodes were reticent to see the US do much of anything. That had the affect of leaving those countries in the Iranian camp, inflaming local Sunnis, and eventually fueling ISIS. On Saudi Arabia, a long-time US ally, Rhodes was critical. In 2016 he was quoted in Politico: “I think that it’s complicated in the sense that, it’s not that it was Saudi government policy to support Al Qaeda, but there were a number of very wealthy individuals in Saudi Arabia who would contribute, sometimes directly, to extremist groups. Sometimes to charities that were kind of, ended up being ways to launder money to these groups,”
The New York Times claimed Rhodes wanted to eliminate tension with Iran and that “would create the space for America to disentangle itself from its established system of alliances with countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel and Turkey.” Along with Kerry, Rhodes appears to have been a driver of the anti-settlement resolution in December 2016. He spoke to The Jerusalem Post about it “”We’ve tried everything…ere we are…at least trying to establish that the international community is on the record.” He depicted the US as having tried hard for years to bring the Palestinians and Israelis together and it hadn’t worked. He had warned about this in 2015. “You know, this focus doesn’t come from Obama or Kerry. The lack of a two-state solution was there when Obama came into office and it may unfortunately be there when he leaves office. And people will still be focused on it. Whoever the next president is, there is going to be significant international concern over the lack of a two-state solution and settlement expansion.”
The recent tweet by Rhodes reveals the deep bias that he brought with him to Obama. This bias tends to see Israel and Saudi Arabia as the troublemakers in the region. Blaming them for “raising odds of direct conflict that pulls in US,” is typical of a larger worldview that views the US as a victim of Israeli foreign policy. It characterizes Israel as “pulling” the US in to the Middle East. It doesn’t acknowledge that the US has been in the Middle East, not because of Saudi or Israel but because of its own choices and policies. It’s alliances have traditionally been based in Israel and Saudi Arabia, but that doesn’t make them at fault for other US policies.
What is the “direct conflict” Rhodes mentions. It appears to be with Iran. But why ignore the Iranian role in direct conflict? Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei routinely calls Israel a “cancer” and threatens it. In February 2017 he supported a “holy intifada” to destroy the “cancer” of Israel. Iran has targeted US soldiers in Iraq after 2003. Iran has supported extremist sectarian groups across the region. So why isn’t Iran and its allies portrayed as “raising odds” of direct conflict? Iran’s policy in Iraq probably helped ISIS grow in 2014. The dictatorship of Assad helped fuel ISIS as well and give it the vacuum it grew in. This has brought the US into the Middle East into direct conflict. So why not see Iran as one of the key problems and instigators? Why is Saudi Arabia’s policy more reckless than that of Hezbollah? Hezbollah intervened in the Syrian conflict. it refuses to lay down its arms in Lebanon, instead stockpiling 150,000 missiles. Doesn’t that raise the odds of direct conflict? Doesn’t Iran’s transfer of weapons to Hezbollah raise the chance of direct conflict? Don’t Assad’s barrel bombs raise the chance of conflict?
The problem with Rhodes is that in 2017, just as during the Obama administration, he ignores Iran’s role in the region and other nefarious actors. Israel and Saudi Arabia certainly deserve critique, but they alone are not fueling the region’s conflicts, and whatever they contribute to the fuel is less than many other countries. Ignoring the incitement from Tehran is not helpful.