A review of Ronan Farrow’s War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence (Norton, 2018) and Ben Rhodes’ The World As It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House (Random House, 2018).
By Alex Thurston
Recently, there has been some compelling work done to articulate a left foreign policy vision, but there has been little corresponding work on left foreign policy implementation. If a democratic socialist won the White House, how would the left approach the nuts and bolts of foreign policy? Has anyone on the American left run a Deputies’ Committee meeting? Steered a nominee through confirmation hearings? Written talking points for a president?
After all, even a democratic socialist president elected with a large mandate might encounter suspicion and opposition not just from Congress, but also from the military and executive branch agencies – the Department of Defense, the intelligence community, and even the State Department. Unlike the bipartisan foreign policy “blob,” moreover, the left’s bench of people with senior executive branch experience is thin. The left has little access to the networks that produce papers such as “Process Makes Perfect” – although the left would do well to study such reports. In short, the best foreign policy vision might falter when faced with the challenges of building effective governing coalitions within the executive branch itself.
One way to examine these problems is through the lens of new memoirs by Obama-era officials. Two books attracted my interest first – Ronan Farrow’s War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence and Ben Rhodes’ The World As It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House.
Both authors are liberals rather than leftists, but both of them have some common ground with the left. Rhodes’ is the more useful read for aspiring foreign policymakers. But starting with Farrow’s book offers an opportunity to think through how the left should relate to the State Department – an indispensable, but not uncomplicated, ally for left foreign policymakers.
War on Peace
Ronan Farrow is best known as a voice and ally for the #MeToo movement, a journalist whose meticulous exposés have helped bring down Harvey Weinstein and Les Moonves. But Farrow also served in two roles at Hillary Clinton’s State Department: as an advisor to Richard Holbrooke in the Office of the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan (2009-2011), and as Clinton’s Special Adviser for Global Youth Issues (2011-2012). Farrow’s experiences at State, combined with some of his investigative reporting abroad, furnish the material for War on Peace. The book is valuable to the left because it highlights both the skills that diplomats could offer a left government and the limitations of relying on diplomats to make policy. Out of all the Cabinet agencies, the State Department is probably the first place to start in building coalitions within the executive, but the left will need to engage the Department creatively. This would mean sidelining some senior diplomats, elevating others, and harnessing technocrats’ skills to best implement left policies.
Few on the left would object to Farrow’s overarching argument that diplomats remain “indispensable,” and that diplomats and diplomatic solutions have been sidelined too often by recent administrations. But in his case for diplomacy, Farrow ends up showing the limitations of the diplomatic old guard. Farrow’s celebration of diplomats who tried to make policy – Holbrooke, and the less famous Robin Raphel –is unconvincing. Holbrooke worked himself to death in pursuit of policies (talks with the Taliban) that the left might applaud. But he also embraced a chessboard mentality wherein multiple complicated initiatives (including a wide-ranging recalibration of the U.S.-Pakistani relationship) would have had to succeed in order for the U.S. to salvage something in Afghanistan. Raphel, meanwhile, nurtured relationships with the Pakistani elite only to find herself the subject of an FBI investigation. The left needs senior diplomats who can help extricate the United States from disastrous quagmires like Afghanistan, but the left will have to think carefully about who its real allies in the diplomatic corps are. The U.S. needs “relationships” overseas to advance left goals, but the relationships cannot become a focus in and of themselves.
The diplomatic corps is not an uncomplicated partner . Judging by various indicators – the frequency with which senior diplomats go on to become lobbyists, the militaristic tone of the “dissent” within the State Department that does become public, and the largely conventional, establishment views of those diplomats who take over think tanks and academic centers – the Foreign Service is not a bastion of left-leaning anti-imperialists. Officials who rose through the ranks during the presidencies of Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, and Obama are not likely to harbor overpowering objections to massive arms sales, open-ended wars, drone assassination programs, or the overall map of U.S. alliances and animosities. A left government would do well to take the time, early on, to identify its actual allies within the Foreign Service: any left-leaning officials among the senior diplomats, any senior career diplomats who view themselves primarily as technocrats and are open to implementing left policies, and any younger diplomats who – perhaps by virtue of different experiences in a post-2003 State Department – are sympathetic to a left worldview. Some technocrats, as Farrow suggests, may have to be rehired after being purged by Trump; in any case, at State and among its veterans there are likely both liberal technocrats who simply regard it as their mission to implement presidential policy, and technocrats who could be won over to left goals. All of these figures could start to provide the core of a coalition between left political appointees and the career executive branch.
The center of policymaking gravity in a left administration, though, should be the White House. Very late in the book, Farrow says of the Iran deal:
“The Iran negotiators prevailed through their trials partly because the president offered full-throated support, with little micro-management…If there was to be a road map for the future of American diplomacy, many career diplomats told me, it was this: embracing the compromise and imperfection of the deals, realizing that they could avert war and save lives; investing in working-level diplomats and giving them a long enough leash to do their jobs; and installing leadership with a visionary belief in large-scale diplomatic initiatives.”
The Iran deal involved a range of people from the State Department, but it was managed, on multiple levels, from the White House. A left government would be wise, at least initially, to embrace the trend toward centralization of foreign policymaking in the National Security Council, rather than at the State Department. Especially in a first term, a left presidential administration would do well to tightly control its major diplomatic initiatives, rather than delegating them to either celebrity appointees or career diplomats at State. Control could be decentralized later, but the stakes will be high early on, and centralized control will be key – in fact, a left NSC may find itself, like past administrations, poaching State’s best talent.
This means, in sum, that a left government would need a Secretary and a Deputy Secretary of State who can do several things at once: (a) close any gaps between the NSC and State on policy implementation, (b) carefully identify and elevate left voices within the Department, and (c) harness technocratic talent to facilitate policy implementation. The model of the jet-setting celebrity Secretary, although used to some effect by John Kerry amid the Iran negotiations, would not be of greatest value to the left. More important is effective management that preserves policy coherence across the executive branch, and that minimizes freelancing. Despite Farrow’s obvious admiration for Clinton as Secretary, his portrait of her suggests a leader who allowed personality to drive policy. In one eyebrow-raising passage, Farrow quotes Clinton saying, “I really believed that if Richard had lived, we would have been able to present to the administration some kind of peace deal [with the Taliban].” If Clinton or the anonymous Obama officials supported the idea of a deal with the Taliban in 2010, they should have pursued a deal even after Holbrooke died. Perhaps the problem is not fundamentally a lack of American investment in diplomacy, but rather the kinds of people who have occupied senior posts in Democratic administrations and the underlying reactivity that seems to guide their decision-making. This lack of ideological principles seems to have put the Obama administration at odds with itself on key foreign policy questions.
The World As It Is
Ben Rhodes joined the Obama campaign in 2007 and remained at Obama’s side throughout both terms, ultimately becoming Deputy National Security Adviser, a key speechwriter, and a foreign policy strategist. Rhodes was one of the more intellectually dynamic members of the administration, moving from a conventional liberal interventionist posture in the first term to, by 2012-2013, judicious skepticism regarding the United States’ ability to transform the Middle East through violence. Rhodes contributed to the best foreign policy decisions of Obama’s second term, namely the Iran deal and the Cuba opening, and he is the most articulate defender of Obama’s correct decision not to pursue an extensive air war in Syria. Rhodes’ description of the Cuba effort, which he personally led, is well worth a read for anyone interested in the mechanics of such diplomacy.
At the same time, where Rhodes’ memoir is long on detail about Iran, Cuba, and his own initiatives to redress American wrongs and remove unexploded ordnance from southeast Asia, it is short on discussions about policies the left finds objectionable, including drone assassinations and the administration’s approach toward Yemen. It is worth listening to Mehdi Hasan’s interview with Rhodes, where Hasan pushed Rhodes on some of these points.
The World As It Is offers the left three crucial lessons about foreign policymaking. First, a left administration would have to come into office knowing what it wanted to accomplish on foreign policy and ready to battle entrenched interests. For example, Rhodes’ descriptions of the “Afghanistan review” of 2009 show political operatives outmaneuvered by generals. Rhodes writes that as Obama hesitated over how many soldiers to send to Afghanistan, “people steadily leaked information that all pointed toward Obama’s sending in forty thousand troops, and it felt as though I had little ability to control anything other than the inevitable speech that Obama would give when the three-month review was over”. To avoid those kinds of traps, a left administration would need to leverage its electoral mandate to dominate the bureaucracy from the start, presenting policies as settled decisions rather than asking for options and letting others dictate the process.
Second, a left administration would need a coherent team committed to a singular vision. Policy disagreements within an administration are to be expected, but Rhodes recounts various important decisions – particularly on Libya – where there was core disagreement not just over courses of action but over the principles underlying them. With Libya, Obama was poorly served by having to sift through debates between liberal interventionists (here Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, Samantha Power, and at the time Rhodes) and more skeptical voices (Joe Biden and Robert Gates). A clear principle for action could have spared Obama what he later called the worst mistake of his presidency.
A clear principle for staff selection would also have helped. In 2007-2008, Obama cobbled together a foreign policy team comprising his own loyalists (who later adopted diverging views, e.g. Rhodes and Power), establishment Democrats willing to break with Clinton (e.g. Rice), and centrist Republicans in whom Obama seemingly hoped to find “bipartisan” credibility (e.g. Gates and Jim Comey). Obama was repeatedly undercut by these differences and by some of the figures themselves, Comey not least among them.
Arguably it was Obama’s commitment to a vague liberal centrism that incubated these contradictions and their consequences – but the left should heed the lesson to prioritize coherence in the White House while valuing experience in the agencies, in the form of midlevel technocrats. Coherence at the center is key. After all, if a leftist president was already viewed skeptically by the foreign policy establishment, no amount of conciliatory appointments could offset that perception. The left might as well follow its own instincts, rather than repeating liberals’ mistakes: the liberal interventionists have no real electoral constituency, and there will be no real rewards for appointing centrist Republicans. Ideological coherence and a willingness to take bold initiative could overcome a deficit of experience or elite buy-in.
Third, a left administration would have to approach the media creatively and critically. As noted above with the Afghanistan review, a new administration encounters players – the military, the intelligence community, certain Congresspersons – who are savvier, at least initially, at dealing with the media. A certain amount of catch-up is to be expected. On the one hand, the Obama team learned over time to focus the spotlight where it belonged. To quote Rhodes (here from Farrow’s epilogue), “The kind of superstar-general dynamic, the Petraeus, McChrystal dynamic, was not present in the second term. Not that generals weren’t stars, it’s just that they weren’t these giant public figures who sucked up oxygen.” On the other hand, Obama’s team repeatedly made their lives harder by heeding the opinions of media figures who offered them nothing, either electorally or in the day-to-day battle for Washington influence.
The left can mitigate some of these risks by sidelining elite media gatekeepers altogether, but the media environment that Rhodes dealt with – already shaped by deeply hostile and paranoid right-wing media – previews the complexity of the environment that a left administration would confront in the 2020s. Rhodes’ approaches will be worth studying because he seems to have been the senior administration official to grasp most fully that Republicans (and right-wing media) were not operating in good faith vis-à-vis Obama. Whereas Obama seemed to cling to illusions that bipartisan comity was possible, Rhodes dedicated much of his time to crafting language designed to deflect bad-faith Republican spin. Sometimes he succeeded, sometimes not.
Left foreign policy implementation, then, starts with a coherent team at the White House and then extends to a partnership with the right people at State. From there, though, the modes of building partnerships get more complicated – and are beyond what this post can address. These two books help start the left down the path of assessing Obama’s highly mixed legacy, but the books also point to ways in which the Obama administration only intermittently achieved foreign policy breakthroughs amidst an increasingly hostile media environment and tricky relationships with other executive branch players.
Alex Thurston is a Visiting Assistant Professor in Political Science and Comparative Religion at Miami University of Ohio, where he studies Islam and politics in Africa.