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The World As It Is: Inside the Obama White House

Ben Rhodes

Top 10 Best Quotes

“Nations arise telling a story that binds people together in sacrifice and cooperation, allowing for remarkable feats. But those same stories have so often been used to oppress and dehumanize those who are different. The wars of the modern age teach us this truth. Hiroshima teaches this truth. Technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us. The scientific revolution that led to the splitting of an atom requires a moral revolution as well.”

“Obama was the most powerful man in the world, but that didn’t mean he could control the forces at play in the Middle East. There was no Nelson Mandela who could lead a country to absolution for its sins and ours. Extremist forces were exploiting the Arab Spring. Reactionary forces—with deep reservoirs of political support in the United States—were intent on clinging to power. Bashar al-Assad was going to fight to the death, backed by his Russian and Iranian sponsors. Factions were going to fight it out in the streets of Libya. The Saudis and Emiratis were going to stamp out political dissent in Egypt before it could come to their kingdoms. A Likud prime minister was going to mouth words about peace while building settlements that made peace impossible. Meanwhile, innocent people were going to suffer, some of them were going to be killed, and there didn’t seem to be anything I could do about it. Obama had reached that conclusion before I had. History had opened up a doorway in 2011 that, by the middle of 2013, had been slammed shut. There would be more war, more conflict, and more suffering, until—someday—old men would make peace.”

“My own nation’s story began with simple words: All men are created equal and endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Realizing that ideal has never been easy, even within our own borders, even among our own citizens. But staying true to that story is worth the effort. It is an ideal to be strived for, an ideal that extends across continents and across oceans. The irreducible worth of every person, the insistence that every life is precious, the radical and necessary notion that we are part of a single human family—that is the story that we all must tell.”

“It was far easier for me to see how the war in Syria was in part an unintended consequence of other American wars, no matter how well-meaning they might have been. The toppling of “Saddam Hussein had strengthened Iran, provoked Putin, opened up a Pandora’s box of sectarian conflict that now raged in Iraq and Syria, and led to an insurgency that had given birth to ISIL. The toppling of Muammar Gaddafi had made plain to dictators that you either cling to power or end up dead in a sewer. Syria looked more and more like a moral morass—a place where our inaction was a tragedy, and our intervention would only compound the tragedy. Obama kept probing for options that could make a positive difference, finding none.”

“I talked to Llewellyn and got a thick briefing packet with the key arguments on both sides. The problem, for those who wanted to stay in the EU, was that many of the arguments for Brexit were built on lies: about how much the UK paid into the European Union; about how Brexit wouldn’t hurt the British economy. Another problem was that the Brexit campaign was tapping into the same sense of nationalism and nostalgia that the Trump campaign was promoting back home: the days of Churchill, the absence of immigrants and intrusive international institutions. The arguments for staying in the EU were grounded in facts, not emotion: The EU was Britain’s largest market. The EU offered Britain a stronger voice in global affairs. Even the name of the campaign—Remain—sounded like a concession that life wasn’t going to be all that you hoped it would be.”

“I stood backstage watching the words roll on the teleprompter. In just two months, the world had turned upside down. We’d seen a regime fall in Tunisia, broken from a longtime U.S. ally in Egypt, and intervened in Libya. History, it seemed, was turning in the direction of young people in the streets, and we had placed the United States of America on their side. Where this drama would turn next was uncertain—protests were already rattling a monarch in Bahrain, a corrupt leader in Yemen, a strongman in Syria.”

“What does it mean to invade a country, topple its leader, face a raging insurgency, open a Pandora’s box of sectarian conflict across a region, spend trillions of dollars, kill hundreds of thousands of people, and permanently alter hundreds of thousands of American lives? Something in the character of post-9/11 America seemed unable, or unwilling, to process the scale of the catastrophic decision, and the spillover effects it had—an emboldened Iran, embattled Gulf states, a Syrian dictator who didn’t want to be next, a Russian “strongman who resented American dominance, a terrorist organization that would turn itself into an Islamic State, and all the individual human beings caught in between.”

“To understand what ended up happening in the 2016 presidential election, you have to understand this: When protests toppled the Ukrainian government, Putin interpreted that as the United States coming into Russia, akin to an act of war; when he launched his counterattack—annexing Crimea, creeping into eastern Ukraine—he weaponized information and showed a willingness to lie, using traditional media like television, and new media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, to spread disinformation into open, Western societies like a virus. Eventually, the Russians would come into America, as they believed we’d gone into Ukraine. They took advantage of the fact that we were worn down by decades of political polarization and the balkanization of our media. America’s antibodies to the sickness of Russian disinformation were weak, if they were there at all.”

“The whole scene put the unpleasantness of the last few weeks into some perspective, but it also fed a sense of anger at the story I was caught up in back in Washington. The notion that there is no room for complexity: Ho Chi Minh was a Communist, not a nationalist. We could not have dropped the atomic bomb on something other than a large city. There are no Iranian moderates. It was as if simply recognizing complexities and context was tantamount to pulling a thread that could cause some American narrative to unravel. The faces of the people lining these streets told a different story. Surely what made America great to them was not the fact that we’d dropped the bomb; it was the ideal associated with who we were, the fact that we had a president who was willing to acknowledge difficult histories and show respect for different people. Our constant struggle to improve ourselves and our country while seeking guidance from the story of our founding values—that is what makes America great.”

“The days are long, the weeks are long, the months are long, but the years are short—one day you look up and realize you’re on the precipice of the final year of a presidential term. You see the world in a different way, as if you could open a window and catch a glimpse of anything that is touched by the reach of the United States government. You can be a part of actions that shape these events—your voice in a meeting, your intervention on a budget line item, your role in crafting the words that a president speaks. You are also a bystander to crises that elude intervention, buffeted by the constant and contradictory demands made on an American president—by other American politicians; by the media; by advocacy organizations; by people around the world. You never know what is the one meeting, the one decision, the one word or phrase that will matter.”

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Book Keywords:

obama, japan, russia, middle-east, speech, perspective, politics, principals, usa, stories, war, brexit, foreign-policy, britain, values, fake-news, syria, international-relations

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