Friday, June 29, 2018

The World As It Is

What prompted this blog was a tv appearance of author Ben Rhodes with Fareed Zakaria.  It was just after the G7 conference when Trump accused Justin Trudeau of dishonesty and cut off an agreement for the conference.  Larry Kudlow sided with Trump saying Trudeau had stabbed Trump in the back.  Ben Rhodes pointed out that Obama had warned Trudeau he would have to stand up to Trump.  Pretty obvious  to most Canadians that Trump was way out of line.

Fareed had commented that the book reads like a novel and Ben admitted that he had a degree in fiction writing.  When my daughter decided to go to school in Halifax I thought I better find out about a part of Canada I had never been to.  I picked "Halifax: Warden of the North" by Thomas Raddall from the library and found it much more fascinating than anticipated.  Soon after I discovered the author had written many novels and I read (and bought) as many as I could find.  Later on I learned of a new book about neighboring Dartmouth and bought it, but a book seller admitted that historians are not usually as good as fictional writers even in narrating history.  Too often true.  But Ben Rhodes actually lived what he writes about and brings a personal understanding.

The title comes from the last sentence of the book,  "I was a man, no longer young, who--in the zigzag of history--still believed in the truth within the stories of people around the world, a truth that compels me to see the world as it is, and to believe in the world as it ought to be."  The world of politics is frustrating--so many reasons why the right things can't be done, except maybe once in a while in a small way.

Ben met and befriended Barrack Obama in 2007 and although only in his late 20's, developed a trust relation that led to writing speeches, consulting on important decisions and assuming some responsibilities on an international scale.

It wasn't that long ago so most readers will have a memory of many of the events, but get an insider's view. The demands of a close relationship with the most powerful man in the world can be rough on family even though his wife was also involved with government administration.  In the book you will get a feel for the grinding demands, but this blog will only highlight a few events.

When Nelson Mandela died the two men headed to South Africa with Ben writing and shaping Obama's speech.  It was a unique experience with the first black American president mourning one of the greatest (black) leaders of the world.  What was mainly conveyed back to American news sources was a selfie with Obama and the Danish prime minster.

Benghazi took up a disproportionate amount of energy in American politics.  Ben wrote a memo to Susan Rice as she was being prepped to speak in national tv regarding the deaths at Benghazi, including points given by the CIA.  Ben found his memo was taken out of context and distorted and he felt bewildered at how aggressive the Republican party attacked him.  There was no smoking gun, but the issue was blown up because the Republicans couldn't find anything better to stir up the voters.

The Iran negotiations stretched over many years and involved many national perspectives.  But it hit some people the wrong way.  Particularly Netanyahu who distrusted Iran and hoped to somehow convince the United States to attack it.  Again hypocrisy reared its head and Republicans attacked the deal without having anything better to offer.

Towards the end of  Obama's second term it was decided that it was time to improve relations with Cuba.  Ben was given the opportunity to negotiate with Raul Castro's son and later with Vatican diplomats.  This required travel to Canada, the Caribbean and the Vatican.  Again there was a lot of resistance, but in the end there was improvement that not only stood to boost relations between the two principles, but raised the American profile over all Latin America.  Some of my thoughts at the time--

Another project that Ben got involved in was with Laos.  During the Vietnamese War  Laos found itself on a route of American bombers who dropped more bombs than were done in WW II over Germany and Japan.  Literally millions were left and were not detonated, but others have been killing children.  Ben campaigned to bring more attention and budget to the problem.

Anthony Bourdain, the traveling gourmet was admired by Ben who appreciated the efforts to spread peace and goodwill by encouraging people to sit down and eat together.  He arranged for Obama to join Bourdain for a television show set in Hanoi.  I remember watching that episode which among other things demonstrated that Obama was not above the common man.

The Russians started to assert themselves during Obama's second term.  They had tried to disrupt Ukrainian efforts to align itself with western Europe.  Americans got involved and had some success in forcing a Russian leaning leader to flee.  Putin pushed back as he felt the Americans should not interfere with what he considered his territory.   He claimed and then invaded Crimea and threatened eastern Ukraine.  During this time a Malaysian Airline plane was shot down killing all passengers.  Ben was concerned that the Russians refused to acknowledge their involvement and blatantly lied about it.

Ben also gives his perspective on Russian involvement with the American election and told of Obama's attempts to deal with it.  The biggest obstacle was Mitch McConnell who threatened to call exposure of the Russian efforts as a partisan effort of the Democrats.  This is also the man who prevented Obama from having his Supreme Court judge choice even given a hearing.

Near the end of Obama's term he got into a discussion with Ben about one of my favorite books, "Sapiens" by Yuval Noah Harari which was highly praised.  Here is my take on what I thought was the best book I read in 2015:

At this time it is upsetting to realize that the American voters have put in place a man who is dedicated to undoing Obama's legacy.  Many are regretting their decisions, but too many are complicit in what is happening.  Ben reports that Obama was very conscious of racist elements in opposition, but chose not to inflame the issues.  Donald Trump made public demands for Obama to prove he was born in America and has been focused on upending all the good things that were attributed to Obama.  As with Harry Truman it may be awhile before Americans wake up to how one of the greatest presidents was not appreciated during his term.

"Eight Years in Power" talks directly on how Obama's legacy has been distorted.  My take:

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