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Ben Rhodes: "Your own story doesn't go away" because you're working in the White House

Ben Rhodes on foreign policy

Ben Rhodes, who served as President Obama's campaign speechwriter and later his deputy national security adviser, writes in his new memoir that he felt a sense of "loneliness" in his role as a top aide to the president. In an interview with CBSN's Elaine Quijano that aired Wednesday on "Red & Blue," Rhodes recounted one occasion in 2013 when he was out to dinner with his wife and in-laws and was told to come straight to the White House. There had been a chemical weapons attack outside Damascus, Syria.

"Sitting in a crowded restaurant with my in-laws, I felt the loneliness of knowing that I'd have to do what the president of the United States was asking me to do, and that on the scale of what was going wrong in the world, my own inconvenience -- however dramatic in the context of my family -- was not going to be anyone else's concern," Rhodes wrote in the book. 

He said he wanted to include it in the book to highlight how "your own story doesn't go away just because you are in these jobs."

Rhodes' new memoir about his time in the White House, "The World as It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House," was released Tuesday.

Rhodes introduced a new word to the D.C. lexicon -- "the Blob." Rhodes said it referred to a type of groupthink in Washington that the way to solve a problem, especially in the Middle East, is to bomb a country, and the idea that if the U.S. is not engaging militarily in the Middle East, the U.S. is not credible.

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"All we're trying to say, there needs to be some reckoning with the fact that we should draw from Iraq and Afghanistan -- the lesson that our ability to shape events from inside of countries in the Middle East is limited," Rhodes said. "We can blow things up, we can take out terrorists and militaries -- the best in the history of the world -- but that doesn't mean you can engineer the politics of another country."

Rhodes said in The New York Times magazine that they had created an "echo chamber" of young, inexperienced journalists so they could sell the Iran deal to the U.S.  Critics have focused on that line as proof that he manipulated public opinion, but Rhodes said he didn't believe it contributed to the deal's ultimate downfall. Rhodes told Quijano that the "basic things I was talking about doing was the routine work of any White House … it's actually not as diabolical as it was portrayed."

"The reason there's not an Iran deal now has nothing to do with that, it has to do with Donald Trump's hostility to anything Barack Obama did," Rhodes said. "Because when he came into office, the Iran deal was working. Iran was complying. His Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis wanted to keep it in place, his former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wanted to keep it place. They kind of went searching for a rationale to blow it up and ultimately didn't even really find any. So I attribute his decision on the Iran deal his hostility to anything having to do with Obama's legacy."

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Rhodes said during his time on the White House staff there was a "generational divide" in the Cabinet over foreign policy. For example, in the earliest days of the Arab Spring, Rhodes said part of it was that people like former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates were "personally invested" in Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. 

But where the generational divide was helpful, Rhodes said, was on policy changes like the Iran deal and in Cuba, where it took a "generational view" to say "let's try something different."

Rhodes wrote about the "push to act like we're going to win the war in Afghanistan," and the "real danger" he sees in taking military action just for the sake of looking like the U.S. is being proactive.

"We went through this whole Afghan review, and [Mr. Obama] kept saying, 'look, we're not going to make Afghanistan a perfect place -- we're not even going to defeat the Taliban'," Rhodes said. "'The Taliban are people who live there -- they're tribal affiliations. Our goal is to defeat al Qaeda and there's a counterterrorism mission.' But there was kind of a mission creep associated with the military because they're there and they're fighting the insurgency and they want to defeat that insurgency. And then it becomes an issue of credibility for the president -- well, will you or will you not put these troops in."

Rhodes said he believes the U.S. should be out of Afghanistan. "When I look back at our administration, I regret that we weren't able to bring that to a conclusion -- not because it would have been a perfect place, but because it's 2018, we've been there for more than 15 years," Rhodes said. "When is this going to end? What are we trying to accomplish? Are making it better? Our troops are serving heroically, but what is the mission we are giving them? It troubles me that it's even kind of possible that we even find ourselves in this position -- by the end of the Trump administration, if it's only one term, still that will more than 20 years in this war. This is not healthy thing for democracy."


Editor's Note: Ben Rhodes is the brother of CBS News president David Rhodes.

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