While plenty of others have laid out the know-it-all attitude of President Obama as conveyed by the New York Times Magazine profile of his communications director Ben Rhodes, there's another angle I would like to cover. To get at my angle, it would help to look at Nicholas Kristof's column from last week about Obama's responses to the Ebola crisis in 2014 and the Zika crisis now. During the Ebola crisis, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) predicted that without intervention, the epidemic in Liberia could mushroom to 1.4 million cases. An epidemic of that scale would have been a vastly greater threat to us than a handful of medical experts traveling there, coming back, and monitoring themselves during the potential incubation period for the disease.
However, the balance of risks did not stop the self-appointed experts like Phyllis Schlafly, Donald Trump, and the Republicans in Congress from declaring that America had to be "kept safe" by stopping all flights to Africa. In actuality, the intervention by western medical crews brought and end to the Ebola epidemic in western Africa and there was not a single fatality from western-contracted Ebola. What this episode demonstrates is that there is such a thing as expertise and that those crafted Obama's response, presumably from the CDC, knew what they were doing. However, until the epidemic was contained, to the self-appointed experts, the public health community was simply what one might call "The Blob."
Just as there is such a thing as expertise in public health, there is also such a thing as expertise in international relations. Unfortunately, as David Samuels' profile of Ben Rhodes demonstrates, Obama's attitude towards international-relations expertise is the same of the self-appointed experts' attitude towards public-health expertise. There are legitimate reasons to challenge the community of experts. For instance it would be useful to call attention to facts that most experts ignore and there is nothing inherently wrong with having values (that is, view of what ought to be) that differ from those of most experts. However, there is a difference between an experts' professional assessment (that is, view of what is) and the application of that expert's values (what ought to be). Spurning the experts' advice, in effect dismissing their analysis because you dislike their conclusions, and treating their assessments of what is as if they were their assessments of what ought to be, creates a substantial risk for disaster. That is what Obama and Rhodes have done.