Ben Rhodes’ False Atonement for the Yemen War
Our failure to reckon with Obama-era atrocities—and why it matters.
On March 27, 2015, two days into the Saudi-led war on Yemen, Barack Obama’s Deputy National Security Advisor publicly defended the U.S.-backed military operation. Ben Rhodes, then 37, had begun as a speechwriter to the Obama campaign in 2007 before rising in the administration’s ranks. He assured the press that, although the situation was complex, the administration was more than able to handle it. “We are always very careful to sort out who are the groups that actually pose a threat to the United States,” he said, as recorded in an NPR clip.
By the time that clip aired, at least 39 civilians had been killed in a war that would within a year become — on Obama’s watch — “probably the worst humanitarian situation in the world,” according to Adnan Abdulfattah, the head of UNICEF’s office in Hodeidah, Yemen. By 2018 the UN was also calling it the worst, seemingly running out of ways to warn the world that the combination of air bombardments and naval blockades was cutting off food and medicine — and pushing the country to famine.
Throughout 2015 and 2016, as the U.S.-Saudi coalition bombed weddings, hospitals, funerals, factories and a school bus, Rhodes went on press calls and media interviews to defend U.S. political and military backing of the war, while issuing vague assurances the Obama administration was doing what it could to protect civilian lives.
Fast forward to the present — for Rhodes, a book tour and think tank co-chairmanship later — and this history seems almost entirely lost to public knowledge. Rhodes has reinvented himself as a vocal opponent of the Saudi-led war in Yemen — a war he once defended — and through this reinvention gained influence in liberal circles. In an era of nostalgia for Obama, he has even been asked to speak among Washington, D.C., liberal and progressive groups working to end the onslaught. His media appearances and commentary are so frequent, his P.R. blitz can only be seen as an effort to become an influential player in the 2020 election — and possibly even audition for a role in a potential Democratic administration.
Yet his denunciations are remarkably devoid of atonement: He somehow skipped the step where he is held accountable for his own significant role in starting U.S. participation in the onslaught, and went straight to the part where he righteously criticizes the Trump administration for escalating it. In his criticisms, he clings tightly to the idea that Obama’s support for the Yemen war was infused with humanity and restraint, a dubious claim used to sell the Yemen War — and used to sell brutal invasions throughout U.S. history.
Of course, Trump deserves to be criticized, and everyone and anyone should be calling for the war to end, including the people who started it. But Rhodes’ failure to account is important because we’re not going to stop wars of aggression by treating them like partisan aberrations from the norm. If we let the Obama-era warmongers define a “progressive” foreign policy through a narrow, anti-Trump lens, we open political space for Democrats — including the next Democratic administration — to revert to Obama’s deeply harmful policies.
The only way to prevent future wars is to stop not only the Trumps and Boltons of this world, but also the Obamas and Rhodes.
What Rhodes did while he was in power
While Rhodes was in a high-level government role, positioned to help stop the war had he wanted to, his statements on the Yemen War were relatively sparse. Those statements he did make are a case study in how liberals sell brutal military interventions to the public, gesturing toward humanitarianism, restraint and respecting alliances.
On Sept. 2, 2015 — six months into the war on Yemen — Rhodes held a press call alongside Jeff Prescott, the administration’s senior director for the Middle East, about the upcoming visit of Saudi Arabia’s King Salman. It was less than two months after the Iran nuclear deal was announced, and Obama was eager to appease a Saudi monarchy angry that the U.S. had made even the slightest overture toward its rival Iran.
By the time of this press call, it was well documented that the U.S.-Saudi coalition was using cluster bombs against civilians. That June, UN envoy for Yemen, Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, had warned Yemen is “one step” from famine, and in August several human rights groups had called on the UN to mount a human rights inquiry.
Rhodes seemed eager to appease Saudi Arabia and establish common ground. “This is an important visit at an important time with the many developments in the region where we have a shared interest with Saudi Arabia,” he said. After saying he “welcomed” Saudi support for the Iran deal, however, he then suggested it was important to look at the other side of the coin:
At the same time, [Saudi Arabia has] expressed concerns about other Iranian activities in the region, which are understandable, given Iran’s destabilizing actions in places like Yemen, Syria and other countries. And so we’re going to continue to be focused on discussing with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf partners how we can build more effective capabilities and cooperation to counter that Iranian activity.
This message is important because, at the time, the Obama administration was overstating the role of Iran in backing the Houthis, and then using this overstated role to justify intervention. It was easier to sell a war against an Iranian bogeyman that key U.S. allies — Saudi Arabia and Israel among them — agreed needed to be opposed.
Rhodes did vaguely gesture towards concern about civilian deaths and injuries, something Obama also did on occasion. But Rhodes talked as though it were someone else doing the killing and maiming. “We’re deeply concerned about, in particular, the deteriorating humanitarian crisis in Yemen,” he said on the September 2 call. “And what we have been doing is urging all the parties involved, including the Yemeni government, coalition members and others, to take steps to allow for unfettered humanitarian access to all parts of Yemen, to enable the operation of the Red Sea ports to humanitarian and commercial traffic, and to avoid damage to Yemeni infrastructure that’s used in the delivery of assistance and other goods and services. And of course, that includes a call on all parties to use restraint in terms of the targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure.”
His remarks give the impression that the U.S. was interceding between warring parties in order to protect civilians — using a presumption of benevolence to justify the intervention. Yet, the “parties involved” included the United States, which was providing intelligence support, identifying bomb targets, refueling Saudi warplanes and, in April 2015, had expedited arms shipments to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. The vast majority of bombings and civilian deaths were caused by the U.S.-Saudi coalition — not the Houthis.
Later in September, the UN declined to mount a human rights probe into the Yemen War, following intense Saudi opposition. Rhodes and the Obama administration were mute on this obstruction effort.
Rhodes held another press briefing on April 21, 2016, at a summit between U.S. and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) defense ministers, at the invitation of King Salman. The latest round of peace talks had just faltered, in the aftermath of a shaky ceasefire agreement that was never fully implemented. The briefing came two weeks after a report was released by Human Rights Watch documenting a March 15, 2016, bombing by the U.S.-Saudi coalition that hit a “crowded market in the village of Mastaba,” killing “at least 97 civilians, including 25 children.” The strike was carried out with U.S.-made bombs.
Amid this climate, Rhodes’ tone can only be described as flattering towards Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), another member of the Saudi-led coalition. The following passage is worth reading in its entirety, because it contrasts so starkly with Rhodes’ later (September 2019) proclamation—tweeted when he was no longer serving in a presidential administration — that “Saudi Arabia is not an ally of the United States.”
So on the atmospherics, I think yesterday the President had very long meetings with both King Salman and Mohammed bin Zayef of the UAE. I think that was probably his longest meeting, with King Salman. It went over two hours. I think it was a very open and honest discussion where they were able to discuss a whole range of issues, some of which we’ve been on strong agreement and some of which have been sources of tension. I think they both agreed that it was to essentially have this opportunity to clear the air and to reaffirm that even as there have been some tensions over the years, that on a set of core issues we are in alignment, whether that’s counterterrorism, whether that’s the security of our Gulf partners, whether that’s the outcome that we would like to see in a conflict like Syria. So I think it definitely moved the ball forward in aligning our approaches, and they were able to be very open and honest and free-flowing with one another in their discussion.
Rhodes went on to assure a reporter that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia are closely aligned: “I think on the core of the relationship, that remains very solid, and that includes our commitment to Saudi Arabian security and sovereignty. They are a country with whom we share significant interests in this region.”
Just six months after Rhodes made this statement, Reuters would reveal that Obama administration State Department officials were privately concerned that the United States might be implicated in war crimes. Some, Reuters reported, were “skeptical of the Saudi military’s ability to target Houthi militants without killing civilians and destroying ‘critical infrastructure’ needed for Yemen to recover.”
The press call included one telling exchange with a reporter, who asked, “In the war in Yemen, did any of the GCC countries ask for specific weapons or more U.S. assistance in Yemen?” Rhodes replied:
With respect to your second question, there was not really a discussion of U.S. military assistance in Yemen. We have provided some support to the GCC operation there, but I think, because they’re now in this window where there’s a cessation of hostilities, the focus of the discussion was really on humanitarian access, humanitarian assistance to the people of Yemen, and the prospects for a political process, and our threat assessment as it relates to AQAP.
In this exchange, Rhodes used the discussion of humanitarian assistance to play down U.S. military aid to the coalition. But U.S. aid was extensive at this time: Reuters reported in September 2016 that “U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration has offered Saudi Arabia more than $115 billion in weapons, other military equipment and training, the most of any U.S. administration in the 71-year U.S.-Saudi alliance.” Meanwhile, the cessation of hostilities Rhodes referred to — officially declared April 10, 2016 — by then had already crumbled, with Saudi Arabia unleashing air strikes on Marib province.
The briefing came less than two weeks after Reuters revealed that, as a consequence of the war, al-Qaeda was able to seize significant territory and run “its own ministate.” From all angles, U.S. participation in the war was a disaster for the people of Yemen. Yet, the United States did not back away, that month deploying special forces to Yemen.
Amid this escalation, Rhodes employed a number of rhetorical tactics to justify direct involvement: He played down this involvement, giving the sense that the U.S. was a benevolent actor above the fray. He also claimed U.S. participation was necessary in order to restrain human rights abuses and protect civilians — providing no evidence of exactly how the U.S. was protecting anyone. And, most glaringly, he emphasized the importance of the special relationship between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, repeatedly playing down the brutal actions of the Saudi monarchy.
What Rhodes did once he was out of power
Once he was no longer in a position of power, Rhodes’ tune began to change — albeit slowly. In his 424-page memoir “of the Obama White House,” published in June 2015, Rhodes never once seriously grappled with the Obama administration’s massive wrongdoing to the people of Yemen, an omission that also marred Powers’ more recent memoir.
While hitting the media circuit to promote his book, however, he did make some partial gestures toward acknowledging that harm — but only partial. On June 22, 2018, as a guest on the podcast of left-leaning journalist Mehdi Hasan, he tried to argue that the U.S. was making an effort to restrain Saudi Arabia: “Well we — we spent a lot of time trying to bring about ceasefires and to end those conflicts. I think this is an issue, Mehdi, when I think back on it, where you know we were pursuing a certain approach of trying to restrain them but trying to work with them, thinking that working with them could allow us to better shape what they were doing in Yemen and get this into a political process.”
This dubious assertion has been echoed by other Obama aides, like former Russia ambassador Michael McFaul. But right out the gate, Obama was bending over backwards for the coalition: His administration agreed to a $60 billion dollar arms deal in 2010 and a $30 billion dollar deal in 2011. Obama did, during his last month in office, halt shipment of precision-guided munitions to Raytheon. But for 22 of the 23 months the war waged under his watch, Obama didn’t put any meaningful restrictions on Saudi Arabia – – then, with only five weeks left in office, he decided on leveling relatively small limits on missile sales (knowing full well a bellicose Trump would lift them). One could suspect this gestures was taken because he and others in his White House knew the stain of their support for the violence in Yemen would haunt them for years to come.
When asked by Hasan about the more than $115 billion total in U.S. military aid to Saudi Arabia, Rhodes tried to make it sound like Obama was pushing Saudi Arabia to change its approach:
You know, I think that our approach, you know which was very visible for everybody to see, especially in the last two or three years, was to go to the Saudis and the other GCC countries and try to get them to reorient some of their approach to their defense away from even the big-ticket hardware that they like to purchase, away from the kind of air campaign that you saw in Yemen, and say to them, “Look, if you have concerns about certain threats from Iran and ISIS that are asymmetric,” right, like interdicting weapons shipments, like cyber-security, like missile defense, “you should focus your defense procurement on those capabilities.
Rhodes seems to think that he can suggest, without documentation, that the United States was maneuvering all the while behind the scenes trying to stop the bloodshed. Never mind Rhodes’ multiple public statements as a high-ranking Obama aide in support of the war. This, “Trust me, it only looked like I was supporting the war — I was actually opposing it from the inside,” line is certainly not unique to Rhodes. (See presidential 2020 hopeful Joe Biden’s revisionism on his support for the Iraq War.) Rhodes supplies no evidence for why the public is supposed to trust him. A good starting point would be to reveal what was actually happening behind the scenes.
Any tentative regret is put solely in partisan terms, failing to acknowledge the horrors of the Yemen War were in full swing under Obama. “If we did know that Donald Trump was going to be president and there wouldn’t be some continuity in that approach that, you know, I think in retrospect we should have been more restrictive in supporting what they were doing in Yemen,” he said. “So that’s an example of a case where the dramatic shift in the orientation of the Trump administration makes me look back differently.”
It is true that Trump escalated the war in Yemen, and it would be a mistake to flatten the difference between the two administrations. While deaths have been climbing steadily since the onslaught began in March 2015, they spiked in 2018 — the deadliest year so far.
Furthermore, the Obama administration did press the Saudi-led coalition not to launch an assault on the port city of Hodeidah. (In June 2018, with Trump in office, the assault took place, with bombs slamming the port that is the conduit for 80 percent of food and aid to Yemen.) Yet, Obama green-lighted numerous other atrocities, including the initiation of the war itself, while shielding Saudi Arabia from scrutiny at the UN.
In short, escalation under Trump cannot erase the atrocities committed by Obama. If the assault on Hodeidaeh was wrong, wasn’t the October 2016 bombing of a funeral, or the early January 2016 bombing of a center for the blind? Is Rhodes only willing to sound his anti-war alarm on the estimated 3,100 Yemeni deaths per month during the worst period under Trump, but not the estimated 2,700 deaths per month during the worst period under Obama? Where is the line for Rhodes, and does it conveniently fall on the other side of the Obama administration?
Notably, Rhodes only clearly admitted to wrongdoing when the political tide was turning against the Yemen War, in an Atlantic piece published Oct. 12, 2018 — 10 days after U.S. journalist Jamal Kashoggi was killed by Saudi Arabia, provoking bipartisan uproar. “Looking back, I wonder what we might have done differently, particularly if we’d somehow known that Obama was going to be succeeded by a President Trump,” he wrote. “In hindsight, we were wrong to think that cautious and at times conditional support for the war in Yemen would influence Saudi and Emirati policy, or help shape the actions of [Saudi prince Muhammad bin Salman], particularly given the turn American politics took with the 2016 election.”
Yet, this article — like his previous writing and statements — continues to whitewash his legacy. He speaks as though atrocities weren’t already in full swing under Obama: “In the absence of any U.S. pressure related to the conduct of the war in Yemen, the conflict escalated, and a humanitarian crisis spiraled out of control with no political endgame in sight.” Phil Weiss and Donald Johnson put it aptly in a critique of the Atlantic article for Mondoweiss: “Rhodes is being way too nice to himself and the Obama people. He didn’t touch on Yemen in his book because at that point it was still mostly ignored and he thought he could get away with it.”
In an April 24, 2019, article published in The Nation, David Klion reported that Rhodes grew defensive when pressed on his record on Yemen, as well as Libya and Syria. “I’ll take all the lumps, and people can pick apart those policies,” Rhodes told Klion, “but at the end of the day, the challenges in our politics that lead to these outcomes have to do with much more deeply entrenched forces not just in the U.S. government but in Congress itself.” He blamed Congress for not putting more pressure on the administration to rein in its warmaking.
This is a cop-out. Obama had tremendous power in the realm of foreign policy, and must take responsibility for expanding presidential war-making power through his broad interpretation of the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force to justify a host of military interventions, from Afghanistan to Somalia to Yemen, his escalation in covert drone strikes, and his deployment of U.S. military service members to fight in wars Congress never approved. Rhodes wants to point blame at everyone except the administration that, in the case of Yemen, initiated participation in a brutal war unilaterally — that is, without Congress.
Gaining influence in progressive circles
Today, Rhodes has refashioned himself into something of a public expert on foreign policy, aggressively asserting himself as a political heavy-hitter just in time for the Democratic presidential primary. He is the founder and co-chair of the National Security Action, which describes itself as “dedicated to advancing American global leadership and opposing the reckless policies of the Trump administration that endanger our national security and undermine U.S. strength in the world.” The organization’s other founder and co-chair is Jake Sullivan, the former National Security Advisor to Vice President Biden. (To get a sense of their liberal-imperialist ethos, see this piece on how NATO, a military alliance created to bolster U.S. power during the Cold War, is an “indispensable partner.”)
There is reason to think National Security Action wields political influence: In October 2018, both Sullivan and Rhodes provided guidance to the House Democrats’ National Security Taskforce, headed by three centrist, and relatively hawkish Democrats: Seth Moulton (Mass.), Stephanie Murphy (Fla.) and Jimmy Panetta (Calif.). But more progressive Democrats have also sung Rhodes’ praises: On February 9, Rep. Ro Khanna (Calif.) tweeted, “The entire Dem caucus and every Dem Presidential candidate should listen to [Ben Rhodes] who has been one of the strongest voices for restraint and human rights in American foreign policy and has taken on the FP establishment when necessary.”
Rhodes has emerged as a prominent commentator on the foreign policy injustices of the Trump administration, his takes widely circulated on progressive and corporate media outlets, including MSNBC and CNN, as well as on Twitter. He has received fawning media coverage for being a prominent supporter of efforts to end the war on Yemen. On October 15 he signed on to an open letter, organized by the Friends Committee on National Legislation, urging Democratic leaders “to reassert the power over war that the Constitution vests in Congress in order to terminate unauthorized U.S. participation in the Saudi-led military campaign against Yemen’s Houthis.” (Other signatories include Samantha Power and Sullivan, as the number of Obama aides who oppose the war now, but didn’t then, continues to mount.)
It is understandable that groups trying to end the war in Yemen would accept support from those who started it, and anything that can hasten an end to the horror of ongoing bombardments is certainly a good thing. But that doesn’t mean that broader society should give Obama aides a free pass for their own wrongdoing, just because they are willing to criticize the Trump administration. This point is underscored by the fact that Rhodes has used platforms afforded him by liberal and progressive groups to rewrite his own history.
On Nov. 28, 2018, Rhodes was a speaker on a call featuring Win Without War and Human Rights Watch. He spoke in favor of a Senate resolution aimed at ending the Yemen War, based on invoking the War Powers resolution, which says only Congress can declare war. Rhodes said, “passage would send a very clear message to the Trump administration as well as to the Saudis and Emiratis that there is a bipartisan group of senators who believe that the war must come to an end.” While Rhodes was right to support this political effort, it must be noted that, under Obama, U.S. participation in the Yemen War also was waged without approval from Congress.
Rhodes also said, on the call, “I think Congress can begin by undertaking a comprehensive investigation of the Khashoggi murder and this is something that a Democratic House should certainly take up.” It is curious that his call for an investigation only refers to an event that happened after Trump took power, ignoring the war crimes that took place before. Rhodes supports investigations — just not of the Obama administration.
On the call, Bryant Harris, a reporter for Al-Monitor, asked Rhodes if he regrets Obama’s support for the war — and whether Rhodes would provide a “granular rundown of what conditions the Obama administration had on U.S. support that no longer exists.”
Rhodes didn’t clearly answer either question, instead stating the Obama administration believed it could “both restrain the military campaign while helping to shape a political solution — that was wrong.” But he maintained that, if Trump had lost the election, the legacy of the Yemen war might look different. “Um, so obviously we don’t know what might’ve happened if a Clinton administration had come in and continued those diplomatic efforts. My suspicion is you would have seen a continuation of a much more robust effort to achieve a diplomatic solution.”
His quickness to pivot away from his own responsibility reflects a political environment where overseers of horrific wars are permitted to utter half-baked apologies and then move on — to have successful careers and retain public platforms and institutional power. And they fully expect to be afforded this courtesy, an entitlement made clear in Rhodes’ defensive — and sometimes snippy — responses to soft criticisms.
Even Bruce Riedel — a CIA veteran, fellow at the centrist Brookings Institution, and former Obama advisor—acknowledged in 2016 that the Obama administration could have ended the Yemen War “overnight” by withdrawing support from Saudi Arabia. Rhodes, for his part, could have spoken out against the war when it would have actually mattered. Imagine how much the conversation would have shifted if, in the summer of 2016, one of Obama’s top advisors resigned and went on 60 Minutes to explain why he couldn’t support the Saudi destruction in Yemen anymore. Yes, it may have harmed his personal career, but it would have likely brought the moral urgency of the matter to the broader public discourse years sooner. MSNBC – – which entirely ignore the siege of Yemen from July 2017 to August 2018, and barely covered it all during the Obama years– – would have been forced to finally discuss the carnage.
Even now, Rhodes could publicly come clean about what exactly he did — and who else is responsible for mass killing on a staggering scale — by providing full documentation, like internal emails and call records. He could have real conversations with Yemenis harmed by the onslaught about what reparations could look like, or at least show some curiosity about what such a process might be. He could beg for forgiveness, instead of declaring himself forgiven. Hell, it’s a low bar, but he could publicly announce he’s decided to donate all the proceeds from his memoir to emergency efforts to help Yemenis survive the ongoing onslaught.
So far as we know, Rhodes has not done any of these things. (He did not agree to speak to In These Times on these issues, citing “time conflicts.”) Nor has any other high-ranking Obama aide. And society has not held them accountable. This is the history of the Yemen War that was handed to Trump, yet Rhodes is hard at work spinning a different, self-serving tale. And in the process, he’s gaining a high profile that’s likely going to position him to serve in — or at least influence — a potential Democratic administration, should that come to pass, and ingratiating himself to Washington, D.C., progressive circles.
This goes beyond Rhodes — and beyond the Obama administration. To prevent another Yemen War, or Iraq War, or bloody Syria intervention, we need to confront the insidious nature of our bipartisan war machine. A war machine that, at times, speaks the language of overt white supremacy and “America-First” chauvinism we’re hearing from the Trump administration. But one that also speaks in liberal cliches of “restraint” and “humanitarian assistance” — and false atonement for past wrongdoings.
Sarah Lazare is the editor of Workday Magazine and a contributing editor for In These Times. She tweets at @sarahlazare.