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Former Obama Administration Insider Says U.S. Is Losing Its Standing On International Stage


President Trump has pulled the U.S. out of some of the biggest foreign policy deals cut by the Obama administration. So if you worked on those deals, what's it like seeing the U.S. walk away from them? Our co-host Audie Cornish put that question today to Ben Rhodes.

BEN RHODES: Well, it's not a lot of fun, Audie, to tell you the truth. I can't sugarcoat it.

KELLY: Rhodes began working for Barack Obama during his first presidential campaign as a speechwriter and went on to become deputy national security adviser. His new memoir of his time in the Obama White House, all eight years, is out this week.

AUDIE CORNISH, BYLINE: The book is titled "The World As It Is." It tells a story that's different from the narrative Rhodes had hoped to tell when he first met then-Senator Barack Obama. Ben Rhodes joins us now from our studios in New York. Welcome to the program.

RHODES: Thanks, Audie.

CORNISH: So a lot has been made of you being a one-time aspiring novelist. So what's it like instead to be coming out with a memoir and a political one at that?

RHODES: Well, it's a different type of book than the novels I might have imagined writing when I was 22. But it's a story about coming of age. I was, you know, relatively anonymous, 29, when I went to work for then-Senator Obama. And what I was able to do that was interesting for me was trace the arc of going from a relatively anonymous speechwriter to a White House aide to a deputy national security adviser and ultimately someone who was quite close to President Obama, and letting hopefully the reader understand what it's like to go through that transformation from being something of an outsider to being inside some of the most momentous decisions of my time.

CORNISH: I want to talk about that more, especially with the president's foreign policy. We heard the first draft of it in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech.


BARACK OBAMA: More and more we all confront difficult questions about how to prevent the slaughter of civilians by their own government or to stop a civil war whose violence and suffering can engulf an entire region.

CORNISH: Now, with the Arab Spring, this kind of became the most vexing question for this administration. And you all struggled with it.

RHODES: We really did, Audie. And he rewrote that whole Nobel Prize speech the morning that we ended up flying to Oslo. And he was wrestling with questions of war and peace and when he would intervene, including would he intervene to stop a massacre? And under what conditions would he do so? And it's kind of chilling to look back and see how much the issues he talked about in that speech foreshadowed the decisions he would make on Libya and Syria. And I went through my own transformation of coming to terms with the fact that I really couldn't find a solution to recommend to him for the awful tragedy in Syria.

CORNISH: To talk more about Syria, when the president was faced with the choice of military intervention after a gas attack by the Syrian government, at one point he made this comment in public.


OBAMA: A red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized. That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.

CORNISH: But it turned into a check you couldn't cash, right? I mean, essentially, once a president says something like that - this is the standard by which we will hold people accountable - and doesn't do that, it's damaging, right? And it became - it was considered as a policy failure for the administration.

RHODES: It was considered a policy failure by many. But at the same time, you know, I wanted to show the complexity of the presidency. And what he essentially said is, if I don't have Congress' support for this and I don't have international support for this and we're dealing with a situation as complex as a civil war in Syria, I can't in good conscience as commander in chief take military action that I don't think is going to work. And, you know, ultimately, we did go to Congress. And then the congressional support evaporated. Republicans who had been demanding action suddenly were against it because Obama was for it.

CORNISH: But we did see the Trump administration do two sets of strikes in Syria since.

RHODES: Which had no effect. I mean, in some ways, Audie, the Trump strikes demonstrate what Obama was saying. I used to argue for military action in the early days of the civil war. And he'd say, well, what happens when we bomb a runway and the next day Assad and the Russians and the Iranians rebuild it? And that's exactly what happened when Trump took that action.

CORNISH: I want to stay with foreign policy and talk about Iran. While the Trump administration has pulled out of that deal, their chief criticism of the original pact was that it didn't do enough or at all really try to address Iran's so-called bad behavior - funding Hezbollah, developing missiles, you know, pushing their influence in the region. And is that something that the administration thought about or could have done within the constraints of the pact?

RHODES: Well, it's something that we talked about endlessly at the time, Audie. And the fact is the nuclear deal was meant to solve the nuclear problem. And you...

CORNISH: But if you talked about it, do you look back now and think, we should've put some of that stuff in?

RHODES: Well, we was - it was a nuclear deal. And we weren't going to be able to get those things in. And the fact of the matter is you want a country like Iran that does have bad behavior across the region to not have a nuclear weapon. That's the whole point behind the Iran deal.

CORNISH: By the end of his presidency, the Obama doctrine, so to speak, has been boiled down slogan-wise to, quote, "don't do stupid stuff," I'll say, which is a major comedown from that Nobel Peace Prize speech. What happened, in your mind?

RHODES: I don't think that was ever our doctrine. It was always affixed to us. I think, you know, he said it would be part of his doctrine to not make mistakes. And I don't think anybody should be for doing stupid stuff. But I also describe how he found a stride late in his presidency where he really was taking chances on top of that.

CORNISH: But the pragmatism is really raw. And when the description of the young man who writes at the start of the book, you know, what he wants from - out of foreign policy and the changes by putting, you know, a different set of people in the room to the guy at the end of the book (laughter) who seems in pretty rough shape, and his boss is - basically the bar is down to don't do dumb stuff...

RHODES: Yeah, but I...

CORNISH: ...It's dramatic.

RHODES: I - yeah. But, Audie, I think that that transformation really had a lot to do with the question of military intervention and can we intervene militarily to transform places? But I found these extraordinary opportunities to see how we could use American diplomacy and the power of America's influence to transform our relationship with Cuba or to bring the world together around an effort to fight climate change. So I felt like my idealism had transformed significantly over the course of the eight years. But it was, you know, relatively intact at the end even if the end of the story is not necessarily the one that I would have chosen.

CORNISH: Before I let you go, I just want to ask about the G-7 'cause that's happening this weekend.


CORNISH: So you have the leaders of the world's wealthiest countries, the G-7 meeting in Quebec. And given that President Trump has slapped tariffs on allies and made all of these changes to global pacts, what do you think he's in for? I mean, you've been in those rooms.

RHODES: Well, I think it's going to be completely different from when we were in those rooms because the G-7 was the summit you would go to where everybody tended to agree. And you were just trying to figure out common strategies for how you were going to deal with Iran or China or terrorism. And it's incredibly unique that he's going to be going there completely isolated from our closest allies in the world.

And it's really concerning to me because the impact of that is is not going to become apparent tomorrow. But over time, I worry about a world in which our closest allies - Canada, Europe, Japan - don't look to the United States to set the agenda anymore. They're setting their own agenda without us. And China's setting its own agenda as well.

And I feel like the biggest problem with the Trump foreign policy which will become apparent in the years to come is that the United States is losing that position where we were essentially the leader of the free world. And we were setting the agenda at summits like the G-7. And I feel like nations like China are going to fill that vacuum very quickly.

CORNISH: Ben Rhodes, thank you so much for speaking with me.

RHODES: Thanks so much, Audie.

KELLY: And Ben Rhodes' new book is "The World As It Is."

(SOUNDBITE OF TREMOR'S "CARACOL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.