Generation X’s Short Arc of History
Ben Rhodes’s new book about global politics reveals the limits of the Obama administration’s worldview.
Originally published at Foreign Policy
July 20, 2021 1:03 pm (EST)
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Generation Xers were never the slackers we were made out to be in bad movies and by snarky cultural commentators. My generation came of age just before the attacks on New York City and Washington. We were inculcated with a sunny enthusiasm about remaking the world. After all, in the fall of my senior year in college, my housemates and I watched in stunned silence when the Berlin Wall fell and Eastern and Central Europeans claimed their freedom. Not long after we graduated, U.S. armed forces needed only three days of ground combat to defeat the Iraqi army after it had invaded Kuwait. Less than a year later, the hammer and sickle came down from atop the Kremlin. Just like that, the Soviet Union was gone.
While I headed to Jerusalem to see about the conflict between Israelis and Arabs, a bunch of my friends set off to Prague, Warsaw, Budapest, Bratislava, and East Berlin to teach English, train journalists, help build political parties, and shape the world in the United States’ best image. We went into the world intent on righting the historical wrongs of communism. The end of history could not have been more exciting.
Three decades later, I found myself standing in the broiling sun on the corner of 17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue with an old friend wondering what was happening. U.S. President Donald Trump had just announced his child separation policy. It was—to us—a shocking development. “How could this be?” we asked each other. This was after the Muslim ban and a variety of other early Trump administration assaults on America’s system of government. Never had we thought our democracy was one we would need to fight for. Yet, there we were, asking ourselves whether all we believed was ever actually true. It was a bewildering moment.
I bring this up because I recently read Ben Rhodes’s new volume, After the Fall: Being American in the World We’ve Made. It is his effort to make sense of the world that, to him––like me––stopped making sense around 2016. For better and worse, the generational experience of the late Cold War and American triumph that shaped my world marks the analysis Rhodes—a fellow Gen Xer—weaves throughout his book.
For anyone who has been living in isolation for the better part of the last decade, Rhodes was a speechwriter, deputy national security advisor, and Robin to U.S. President Barack Obama’s Batman for eight years. There are few inside Washington who are neutral on Rhodes. Fierce criticism of him seems to be based on policy and worldview differences, professional jealousy, or some combination of the three. Those who like him do so for obvious reasons. He served a president they supported and/or they are Washington strivers who want jobs in Democratic administrations and would not want to offend someone as influential as Rhodes.
There is a fair amount to commend in After the Fall. Rhodes writes very well, which should not be a surprise. It would be hard to be a speechwriter for a guy who is a master at the written and spoken word if one was a slouch at the keyboard. I am envious of Rhodes’s ability to make Hong Kong, the Venice Beach Boardwalk, and the Upper East Side of Manhattan come alive on the page. And although I am close to a decade older than Rhodes and grew up 35 miles east of him, we share many of the same cultural referents. Anyone who can drop Rocky IV’s Ivan Drago, rock bands Def Leppard and Soundgarden, and the 1980 U.S. hockey team into a meditation about the state of the United States and its place in the world is going to get smiles of appreciation from me.
More importantly, Rhodes sets up the analytic problem effectively: the yawning gap between the United States’ promise on which he was reared and the reality of early 21st century America—a country slouching toward authoritarianism. Rhodes wants to understand how we got here: If this is not us—as the president he once served so often declared—then who are we?
Despite his elegant prose and superior storytelling abilities, Rhodes leaves his readers frustrated as he takes them on a long, meandering path to discover what has become of the United States through encounters with oppositionists and activists in Hungary, Russia, and China. His overall point is straightforward: Rather than the world becoming more like the United States, as so many of us expected after the Cold War, the United States has become more like the rest of the world—in particular, its authoritarians. In an odd twist to the modernization paradigm that once dominated U.S. social science, there has been “convergence”–– just not in the way anyone would have expected.
In his conversations with interlocutors, Rhodes finds parallels between the consolidation of authoritarianism in other places and in the United States. He is not saying the United States is Hungary, Russia, or China. That would be absurd; he is, however, making the case the political dynamics that turned Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Hungary into a nationalist, revanchist, antisemitic, anti-immigrant, and authoritarian place are apparent in the United States.
The connections Rhodes makes between authoritarian systems and what is happening in the United States seem pedestrian in mid-2021, however. To be a Turkey analyst, Egypt watcher, or Eastern Europe politics expert during the Trump years was both fascinating and disturbing. Often, my first reaction to the daily barrage of news alerts reporting some presidential antic or odious new policy was to mumble, “that’s so Erdogan.” Rhodes’s point that the United States has become a case study in democratic backsliding is old news.
A more significant problem with After the Fall is Rhodes’s historical narrative, which begins with the attacks on New York and Washington and ends with the Trump presidency. There is no doubt this was a particularly grim two decades in U.S. politics and foreign policy—encompassing the USA Patriot Act, the invasion of Iraq, the financial crisis, Trump’s election, a right-wing media ecosystem, and the Republican Party increasingly becoming detached from reality. In between, Americans had to contend with rising income inequality, an opioid epidemic, the recrudescence of white nationalism, state-sponsored brutality meted out to predominantly immigrants of color, and an increasingly deadly society, whether by way of gun play, pandemic, drug addiction, or suicide. As a result, it has become the standard among left-leaning commentators and activists to latch onto the post-9/11 era as the United States’ source of tribulations.
There is truth in this, but it is also lacks depth and perspective. Rhodes is not blind to the malignant legacies of slavery, genocide, internment camps, Jim Crow, redlining, and other disturbing aspects of U.S. history, but he remains—despite his weary tone—a believer in U.S. exceptionalism and thus clearly regards the last 20 years to be an aberration. It would be hard not to be, having served the first Black president—although Obama would likely be the first to tell Rhodes the antecedents of the United States’ present pathologies run deeper than an era bookended by a crisp, clear Tuesday morning in September around the turn of the century and an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Finally, there is no analytic payoff in After the Fall. I appreciated Rhodes’s description of his family’s background and the grittier New York City of the 1980s that came toward the end of the book. The anecdotes brought me back to years when I was sneaking into Manhattan bars with my college mates who preceded Rhodes at Collegiate School and other New York City private schools, but it seemed oddly out of place. Rhodes’s Texas-New York, half-Jewish, half-Democrat, half-Republican family history is interesting, but it is not necessary. He has earned the right to ask, “How did we get here?” and “Why did this happen?” by dint of his own extraordinary professional experiences. That is why I picked up the book.
Surely Rhodes’s proximity to the highest office in the land gave him unique insight into why Americans find themselves in their current condition. Regretfully, Rhodes does not offer much other than well-worn propositions and observations: 9/11 led to Trump, “progress doesn’t move in a straight line,” foreign policy begins at home, and Americans have an opportunity to “recover” themselves. What does this latter point, in particular, mean? Recover what? The legend of the United States based on the exceptionalism story or the actual United States? Rhodes is caught between the fervently held truths of his youth about U.S. progress and the disorienting reality of adulthood that history is not linear. He seems to want a normal country that is “no longer a hegemon” without jettisoning the exceptionalism-styled mythology that is, apparently, the foundation of Rhodes’s worldview.
Perhaps I am not the audience for After The Fall, which certainly offers useful insight to readers, especially those who haven’t marinated themselves in comparative political analysis. I also do admire Rhodes from afar. He has accomplished a lot at a (painfully) young age. When he left the White House in 2016, he could have opened the Rhodes Group and done the Washington thing, cashing in and trading on his experience. Instead, he chose to write books and try to answer tough questions.
This brings me to the issue of the day (plus 20 years), Afghanistan. Rhodes believes it is time to withdraw, but he recognizes the risks associated with the Biden administration’s policy. (I agree with him.) He knows better than most people in Washington that foreign policy is often making the best possible decision among a range of bad options. Yet, it is hard to square the end of the United States’ long Afghan campaign with Rhodes’s ringing call for a politics and foreign policy that is more enlightened. The United States failed in Afghanistan. What it has done there is a stain on the country. America’s departure is hardly a new beginning. It has to be done, but it is a further indicator of the parlous state of its politics and foreign policy.
Rhodes believes the United States can fix these things, which is curious because, as he has expertly illuminated in his book, what many of us believed to be the natural order of things may have only been a moment in history. It is disquieting to say the least, but there may be no putting things back together after the fall.