Ben Rhodes, who served Barack Obama as a foreign policy adviser and speechwriter from beginning to end, has written a book that reflects the president he served — intelligent, amiable, compelling and principled. And there is something more: The World as It Is is a classic coming-of-age story, about the journey from idealism to realism, told with candor and immediacy. It is not a heavy policy book. There are anecdotes galore, but they illuminate rather than scandalize. Even Donald Trump — a politician who seems the omega to Obama’s alpha — is treated with horrified amazement rather than vitriol ... Ben Rhodes is a charming and humble guide through an unprecedented presidency. He writes well, even though he has a master’s degree in creative writing, and he has a good eye ... his achievement is rare for a political memoir: He has written a humane and honorable book.
The result of Rhodes’s many years near the Oval Office is that he can punctuate The World As It Is with glimpses of the private Obama. Some of these are amusing anecdotes ... Others suggest a president who was an especially gifted politician at election time but disdained the day-to-day politics in which most presidents engage ... What Rhodes’s book shows is that in too many cases, foreign policy decisions were turned into questions of identity and self-definition, thus making them a function of Obama’s personal history ... One is left to wonder who Obama was when he decided against asking Congress for approval before he launched military action against Libya in 2011, or drone strikes and special operations attacks throughout his presidency ... In his memoir, Rhodes positions himself to the left of Obama: more concerned about democracy and human rights, less willing to support authoritarian regimes. He acknowledges his occasional disappointment with his boss ... one of the strengths of Rhodes’s book is that, in passing, he shows the gradual emergence of the right-wing, faux-populist movement that produced Trump ... there are some ways in which, decades from now, historians may come to think that the Trump administration was as much a continuation of the Obama years as a turnabout from them. Rhodes himself recognizes this uncomfortable continuity, starting with matters of campaigning: 'When you distilled it, stripped out the racism and misogyny, we’d run against Hillary eight years ago with the same message Trump had used: She’s part of a corrupt establishment that can’t be trusted to bring change.'
The young presidential aide...preens less than I expected in his inside-the-bubble memoir ... Rhodes also exhibits less self-knowledge than one might wish ... he replays Syria so often — yo-yoing between his desire 'to do something' and 'world as it is' futility — that it’s clear (if not to Rhodes) he still has a lot to work through about Obama’s responsibilities and his own ... The book also convinced me, despite Rhodes’s denials, that Obama overlearned the lesson of Iraq. The president’s fear of escalation and slippery slopes becomes the reason not to take responsibility for a post-Gaddafi Libya, or send lethal aid to Ukraine, or seriously consider options for Syria that might have weakened Assad or constrained the wholesale killing of his people ... I suppose it’s good to know that in private Obama was as worried as the rest of us. It just doesn’t make me feel any safer.
In The World As It Is, Rhodes tells his side of the story. As to be expected, he gives a full-throated defense...and seeks to extricate himself from the Benghazi debacle. What makes the book truly illuminating, however, are its quotes, barbs and reflexive disdain for flyover country ... Rhodes stands on firmer ground when he examines the contradictions within American foreign policy ... As one example, Rhodes observes how the anti-communist Afghan freedom fighters of the 1980s morphed into 21st-century jihadists.
To Rhodes’ credit, he also acknowledges that Obama’s 'reset' with Russia did not work ... Like a doctor taught to do no harm, Rhodes repeats Obama’s aphorism, 'don’t do stupid shit'. That is easier said than done.
Mr. Rhodes’s engaging, disturbing entrée into post-presidential myth-shaping is titled The World as It Is, the assertion of a worldview billed as a statement of reality: Mr. Rhodes, as Mr. Obama’s deputy national security adviser and all-purpose sounding board, saw the world from a rare height and intends to explain it to us ... Politics for Mr. Rhodes is a dichotomy—the rational and virtuous versus the angry and absurd. His side has ideals. Those who don’t share those ideals have issues: They’re tools of corporate interests; they’re twisted by racism, tribalism and fear of 'the other'; they’re slaves to the conservative media. Mr. Rhodes has little patience for reasoned argument—he deals in labels—and this saves him the trouble of having to argue for what he believes.
The tug-of-war between the two sides of Obama’s sporting personality—the team leader and the loner, the dreamer and the realist, the man who thinks anything is still possible and the man who has done his best, then shrugs his shoulders and walks away—is emblematic of the fundamental tension running through this fascinating book ... Part of the charm of Rhodes’s story is that he doesn’t try to hide the extent to which this was largely about his own crisis of identity. The book is engagingly honest in its self-centredness. He refers throughout to his own anxieties and doubts, his feeling that he is not getting the recognition he deserves and his worry that he might have sold himself cheap ... For a speechwriter, there is a particular poignancy in realising that being tasked with finding things for Obama to say—ith preparing the text – is part of what creates the barrier between them. How can Obama be true to himself as Rhodes wants him to be when Rhodes is the person making Obama who he is? Sometimes this contrast is so stark it is almost comic, and Rhodes appreciates the irony ... The tension between what is and what ought to be forms the essence of most political coming-of-age memoirs and this one is no different from other classics of the genre, such as The Education of Henry Adams: the dilemmas it describes could come from any time in the history of modern politics, not just our own.
In politics...how many hero worshippers have surrendered to a strutting, loud-mouthed demagogue? But Rhodes does not regret his choice...he documents in his taut, compelling book. Obama, as seen by this admirer, is little less than a superman – preternaturally intelligent, disciplined, abstemious, unfailingly polite and, despite his self-control, capable of a cathartic emotional release ... Rhodes is never disillusioned, yet the closer he gets to Obama the more tricky and paradoxical their relationship become ... The title of Rhodes’s book accepts that the world as it is, venal and irredeemable, will always prevail over the world as it ought to be ... Happy endings, as Rhodes has discovered, occur only in fiction.
Much of the book is an insider's perspective on Obama as he strategizes in the Situation Room, fences with Putin on the hotline, and broods on Air Force One; the president is rational, thoughtful, exasperated when the world doesn't follow suit, and grimly realistic ... Rhodes's analyses of problems in foreign countries can be superficial, but his account of policy sausage-making is well-observed and riveting.