The New York Times has an article describing how Ben Rhodes, President Obama’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, sold fiction as truth in communicating the president’s foreign policy. Rhodes regarded the deception as a clever way to success. Like an engineering student who has found a way to cheat on his final exam, or a man astonished to find himself with a medical license by mistake, Rhodes appears to think he’s actually accomplished something positive. He has no clue he’s set up a disaster that is only waiting to happen. Thomas Ricks, writing in Foreign Policy, calls the article “a stunning profile of Ben Rhodes, the asshole who is the president’s foreign policy guru.”
But it is also a profile of the president. As David Samuels wrote in the NYT source article, Rhodes saw himself as a reflection of the president:
Part of what accounts for Rhodes’s influence is his “mind meld” with the president. Nearly everyone I spoke to about Rhodes used the phrase “mind meld” verbatim, some with casual assurance and others in the hushed tones that are usually reserved for special insights. He doesn’t think for the president, but he knows what the president is thinking, which is a source of tremendous power. One day, when Rhodes and I were sitting in his boiler-room office, he confessed, with a touch of bafflement, “I don’t know anymore where I begin and Obama ends.”
Rhodes is the reflection. Obama is the originating image. Rhodes is just a flunky who transcribes what the president dictates. Still the Samuels article, by printing the administration’s admission of its willful deception on Iran policy, provides crucial insight into the fascinating subject of whether Barack Obama — if you believe he is a failure — is incompetent or malevolent.
Which is it?
At first glance the admission that the administration lied to the public seems a slam-dunk case for malevolence. But there’s more to it than that. There is a perception that political imbecility is a lesser offense than malice. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the anti-Nazi activist, while in prison waiting to be executed, reflected that “stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than malice” because evil left behind in its conscious perpetrators “a sense of unease.”
Against true imbecility even reasoning was useless since you couldn’t even appeal to your enemy’s self interest because they were too dumb to see it. “Against stupidity we are defenseless,” he wrote, because imbeciles never feel a qualm. Against the stupid “neither protests nor the use of force accomplish anything … reasons fall on deaf ears; facts that contradict … simply do not need to be believed … and when facts are irrefutable they are just pushed aside as inconsequential, as incidental. In all this, the stupid person, in contrast to the malicious one, is utterly self-satisfied and, being easily irritated, becomes dangerous by going on the attack.”
For all his persuasiveness, incompetence is Satan’s principle problem. The devil always sets out to construct heaven and winds up with hell because he uses the wrong principles. Castro, Kim, Stalin, Chavez, Mao — who all would have ruled the universe if they could have, yet finished up ruling trash heaps — probably were surprised at the turn of events. Yet why should it be surprising? Mordor in The Lord of the Rings was the shabbiest place on Middle Earth just as Pandemonium, Milton’s capital of hell in Paradise Lost, is the most frightful place in the universe because these turkeys were going about it the wrong way and were too proud to admit error.
Clueless yet self-righteous would describe Ben Rhodes to a T. Samuels in his article has a moment of clarity when he understands that he isn’t anywhere real. “Having recently spent time working in Hollywood, I realize during our conversations that the role Rhodes plays in the White House bears less resemblance to any specific character on Beltway-insider TV shows like ‘The West Wing’ or ‘House of Cards’ than it does to the people who create those shows. And like most TV writers, Rhodes clearly prefers to imagine himself in the company of novelists.”
President Obama is not like a fictional president, he is a fictional president. When Obama described himself as a blank screen on which anyone was free to project his fantasies, the public should have listened. What makes the present absurd situation possible is that a critical mass of voters have agreed to go along with the make-believe. Bonhoeffer in his prison letters says what he means by “stupid” is the passivity born of a feeling of learned helplessness akin to an audience passively watching a play.
Upon closer observation, it becomes apparent that every strong upsurge of power in the public sphere, be it of a political or a religious nature, infects a large part of humankind with stupidity. … under the overwhelming impact of rising power, humans are deprived of their inner independence and, more or less consciously, give up establishing an autonomous position toward the emerging circumstances.
To him the German people had become an audience watching a madman on stage. Ben Franklin had the idea before Bonhoeffer, when he observed that a functioning republic required thinking voters but tyranny needs only groupies. Society is stupid in the same way, stuck on celebrity, stuck on being groupies for Hillary, Bernie, Donald, Obama and Kim Kardashian.
Read it all.