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Dickey Center Director Writes, Speaks With Urgency of the Times

  • Daniel Benjamin at the Dartmouth College Dickey Center on Tuesday, April 4, 2017, in Hanover, N.H. Benjamin is the director of the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College and former ambassador-at-large and coordinator for counterterrorism at the U.S. State Department under the Obama Administration. (Valley News - Jovelle Tamayo) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

  • Daniel Benjamin, director of the Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College and former ambassador-at-large and coordinator for counterterrorism at the U.S. State Department under the Obama Administration, explains his criticisms of Donald Trump on Tuesday, April 4, 2017, in Hanover, N.H. (Valley News - Jovelle Tamayo) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/28/2017 12:40:04 AM
Modified: 5/28/2017 12:40:06 AM

Hanover — At the back of his office in the John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College, the center’s director, Daniel Benjamin, has propped up a postcard of the 1533 double portrait The Ambassadors, by Hans Holbein the Younger, then the painter to the English court of Henry VIII.

The Ambassadors was considered a feat of remarkable technical brilliance for its depiction of two Frenchmen: one the ambassador to Henry’s court and the other a bishop in the Catholic church, both surrounded by scientific and musical instruments of the time.

The painting is as well known for its distorted depiction in the foreground of a skull — a technique known as anamorphism — which is recognized as a skull only when looked at from a perspective that isn’t head on but from different angles.

The Holbein turns out to be a useful metaphor for Benjamin’s professional life.

Benjamin, who has been a journalist and was ambassador-at-large and coordinator for counterterrorism at the U.S. State Department from 2009 to 2012 under Secretary Hillary Clinton, has spent his career in fields that ask the people who work in them to be willing to overturn received wisdom, and to look at complex issues from fresh or unconventional perspectives.

Since coming to the Dickey Center in January 2013, Benjamin has looked at government and journalism through a different lens: one that is at a slight remove from the centers of power on the East Coast.

“There’s a lot to be said for being outside the Beltway because it forces you to think about politics in a broader way, because D.C. is so, Who’s up, Who’s down. .... I’m a big believer in getting out of the Beltway and into other communities,” Benjamin said in an interview last month. “It’s been very good for me, and good for my family, too.”

Benjamin, 55, has continued to write and speak about the same kinds of issues that he addressed while in government, but with an added urgency. In essays and op-eds for Politico, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and Time, (some of them written with frequent co-author Steven Simon) Benjamin has sounded the alarm about some of the more provocative statements and initiatives of President Donald Trump and his administration.

They have included: Trump’s murky relations with Russia, the controversial executive order in January intended to temporarily suspend the admission of refugees to the United States and halt the admission of all Syrian refugees, and the order to launch a cruise-missile strike in April against the Shayrat air base in Syria.

Benjamin, who has salt and pepper hair and wears glasses, speaks with the crisp, measured assurance of someone who has worked at the upper echelons of journalism and government. He pulls the threads of his arguments together expertly and forthrightly, but without the pomposity that can sometimes attend those who have been in or near centers of power.

Benjamin, and others like him who have toiled away in public service, take the business of governance seriously. Which is why he’s perturbed that, as a campaigner and now as president, Trump, and some of the people in his administration, have spoken (and tweeted) in a rash, off-the-cuff manner about issues, both domestic and international, of crucial importance to the U.S.

“American security and prosperity since World War II has been based on global leadership and playing a vital role in maintaining peace and security, but also free trade, for many, many decades. The president’s interpretation of America First means moving away from all that, and to me that’s a recipe for disaster,” Benjamin said.

Benjamin grew up in Stamford, Conn., one of three sons born to Burton and Susan Benjamin. His father is an internist; his late mother, over the course of her life, was a teacher, an administrator at the University of Connecticut and the head of marketing for a Manhattan law firm. They were a moderately observant Jewish family, Benjamin said.

He graduated from Harvard in 1983 and was awarded a Marshall Scholarship to Oxford University in England. His parents’ earnest hope was that he would pursue a career in law or medicine. Benjamin’s intention was to become an academic, but he ended up going into journalism. He’d worked on The Harvard Crimson and had relished the opportunity to really dig into a subject and present a viewpoint.

“What could be better than learning about new things and writing about them?” he said.

Benjamin’s first jobs after college were in journalism. He reported for Time from 1988 to 1992, and The Wall Street Journal, where he was the Berlin bureau chief, from 1992 to 1994.

Living in Germany and working as a foreign correspondent was as close to a perfect job as possible, Benjamin said. “I had more autonomy as a foreign correspondent in Europe than almost anyone in the workforce. ... It was a fabulous life in terms of calling your own shots.”

But he got a call in 1994 from a friend who was working for Tony Lake, then the national security adviser under President Clinton. There was a job as a foreign policy speechwriter and would Benjamin like to apply for it? Benjamin jumped at the chance.

The job was not what he’d expected, however. “It was an enormous and painful adjustment. ... I went to the White House and I was the smallest cog in the biggest machine known to man,” he said.

To get through, he had to cultivate detachment and not let his ego get in the way because, he said, “you get kicked around a lot.” For the first 18 months in the White House he felt he’d made a terrible mistake and he tried to get back into journalism. Because of his work for the Clinton administration, however, the doors of such newspapers as The New York Times and The Washington Post were no longer open to him as they once would have been.

Benjamin remained as a foreign policy speechwriter for the National Security Council from 1994 to 1998; from 1998 through 1999, he worked as director for counterterrorism at the NSC’s Transnational Threats Directorate, under Richard Clarke.

He was at the directorate in August 1998 when al-Qaida pulled off the nearly simultaneous bombings of the American embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, which killed more than 200 people. “I was working nonstop around the clock that whole time,” Benjamin said.

He did make an exception, however, for his wedding at the end of August to Henrike Frowein, whom he had met in Germany. “I got thrown out of the office and got married,” Benjamin said.

The U.S. was watching al-Qaida before the Africa bombings, although the realization that this was a new kind of warfare took time to sink in, as described by Benjamin and co-author Simon in their 2002 book The Age of Sacred Terror, which was named a New York Times Notable Book and earned the 2004 Arthur Ross Book Award from the Council on Foreign Relations. (Their follow-up book is The Next Attack: The Failure of the War on Terror and a Strategy for Getting It Right.)

For the officials working in counterterrorism who were convinced that al-Qaida represented an urgent and radically new kind of threat, it proved difficult to rewrite the long-held article of faith, drawn from decades of experience, that terrorism was always intended as a means to a political end, rather than the end in itself.

Wrote Benjamin and Simon: “There were no dramatic statistics or powerful, graphic evidence; indications of real change in the nature of the danger, while not invisible, were subtle.

It took time to sort through intelligence and reconstruct plots, so the origins or motives of an attack might take months or years to understand. And while this new paradigm was being born, the old one of state-sponsored and national-liberation terrorism persisted.”

Simon and Benjamin met at the White House when Benjamin was a speechwriter and Simon was working on Middle East security issues and counterterrorism.

“I was a career civil servant and was impressed that he had willingly surrendered a fairly glamorous career as a journalist to get his hands dirty in government,” Simon wrote in an email.

“We shared a particular intense experience in the Clinton White House, and we both care a lot about the things we write about. I suppose we share a worldview in which responsible governance and prudent policymaking matter.”

Although Benjamin was given increasing authority as he climbed from one rung to the next, he likened the responsibility it conferred on him to the mantra of the Mercury 7 astronauts described in Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, which went something like: “Please, God, don’t let me screw up. The consequences would be enormous.”

Benjamin, wrote Michele Flournoy, the undersecretary of defense for policy from February 2009 to February 2012, “brought a great deal to his job as counterterrorism coordinator: a strategic perspective that put individual counterterrorism operations in a larger context; an understanding of how to integrate the military and nonmilitary dimensions to achieve better results; an appreciation for the importance of disrupting the recruitment and radicalization process, not just killing known terrorists.”

Benjamin has had the closest view possible of those in power, but he demurs at the idea that amassing power is the primary animating principle for going into, and staying in, government.

Most people who work for the government are there because they believe in public service and the ability to do good for other people, Benjamin said. His government service gave him “an understanding and a respect for what civil servants and the foreign service and the military do. It gives you a sense of the country that you wouldn’t have otherwise.”

Benjamin points to two men whom he regards as model public servants: the late Sandy Berger, who succeeded Tony Lake as national security adviser in the Clinton White House; and James Mattis, the current secretary of defense and former commander of U.S. Central Command, which oversees American security interests in the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia

Berger was “extraordinarily devoted to the well-being and national security of the nation, but also tremendously humane and concerned about and supportive of his staff,” Benjamin said. “He was completely undeterred by the power of the people he worked for. For a president of the U.S., that is absolutely invaluable.”

And Mattis, in Benjamin’s view, is a “truly outstanding guy and I think that he is doing his level best to maintain our alliances, and keep us in a position of leadership. ... Frankly, if he were gone, I’d be terrified.”

Although there traditionally has been in American government a clear division between the military and the civilian branches, the presence of three former generals in positions of civilian authority — Mattis, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly — reassures Benjamin, for the most part.

“One of the reasons why I’m more supportive of the generals and the military more broadly is that it’s become a critical part of our military training to know when to refuse an illegal order. So you know that if Trump ordered anyone to do what he said he would during the campaign, which is to kill all the families of the terrorists, you know that the military would take that as an illegal order and would not obey. And I’m pretty confident that’s true.

“I’m also pretty confident that, at least at home, I think that we have a really strong civil society and there are people who will go to court when things go wrong and so there’s reason to hope that things don’t go terribly, terribly bad. But bureaucracy makes it possible to do things on a big scale, good or bad,” Benjamin said.

After leaving the Clinton administration, Benjamin was a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, from 2001 to 2006, and between December 2006 to May 2009, he served as the director of the Center on the United States and Europe, and senior fellow of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

By 2011, when he’d returned to national security work in the Obama White House, Benjamin was on the road continuously as coordinator for counterterrorism. He and his wife were the parents of two young sons, who are now 15 and 13. Frowein was “carrying more of the load than she should have,” and their children missed him, he said.

He’d been planning to leave at the end of President Obama’s first term, but the desire to be closer to his home and family took precedence. And then life intervened in the form of the open directorship of the Dickey Center after its previous director, Kenneth Yalowitz, retired at the end of 2011.

Benjamin learned about the position through a rather unusual source for a person with his credentials: a classified ad in The New York Times. “It was completely over the transom,” Benjamin said.

Benjamin’s contacts in the worlds of government and journalism, and his policy background, were obvious advantages to the college. John Carey, a professor of government at Dartmouth, was interested in a candidate who could work well in an academic setting and also bring high-level government officials to a campus that is not on the Boston-New York-Washington D.C. circuit.

“I was looking for was someone who could serve those two roles without making trade-offs, and I think (Benjamin) strikes that balance well,” Carey said.

Benjamin was appointed in May 2012, but because Secretary Clinton asked him to stay on until the end of the year he began the job at Dartmouth in January 2013.

In fairly short order, Benjamin was able to bring Mattis to the college in fall 2013, among other guests. Gen. Michael Flynn, who stepped down this winter as national security adviser in the Trump administration after controversy over his ties to Russia, visited campus in spring 2015.

Benjamin, said Lisa Baldez, also a professor of government, has been effective at linking the center’s five disciplines — environment, gender, health, human development and security — “with the policy and practice of these issues in the global arena.” And he has been vigorous in writing essays and op-eds that speak to those issues, Baldez added.

Benjamin said he feels he has a civic duty to write in opposition to some of the policies of the current administration, although, along with notes of encouragement, he receives plenty of hate mail, some of it nakedly anti-Semitic. (Benjamin was recently named to the council of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.)

“If you’ve been inside government, and you have a sense of which side is up, you do feel like you’ve got to correct the record when a lot of people are saying outlandish things,” he said. “But when your dander is up you like to write, too. It’s a hangover from my journalism days: If you’re not writing, there’s something wrong.”

Writing, he said, is how he makes sense of the world. “Whoever it was who said, ‘I don’t know what I think until I’ve written it,’ put their finger on something important.”

Benjamin is aware of the bind that journalism finds itself in, with papers closing, jobs and revenue being lost, and the trust of some members of the public eroded. The latter, in particular, is a “big problem and I’m not sure how we solve that,” he said.

But the erratic behavior of the president and the administration in the early going has sharpened the competition between newspapers to break big stories.

“And that is probably the best way to rekindle public interest in the press,” Benjamin said. “At the end of the day my hope and prayer is that Mark Twain will turn out be right when he said never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel.”

For the moment, Benjamin, in his writing and his work at the Dickey Center, will continue to issue broadsides against some of the policies of the Trump administration. The inequality gap, the policy in the Middle East, the hundreds of unfilled civil service and appointed positions, the threat to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change, and the proposed rollback of environmental regulations.

“There’s no shortage of things to worry about. My wife thinks I spend too much time worrying,” he said.

There’s something larger at stake, though, that Benjamin pinpoints. And that is what he terms the “self-sorting of like-minded people into like-minded communities,” aided and abetted by the internet, Twitter and social media. With that comes, he said, a narrower sense of how large the world is, and a cynicism about people whose opinions differ from our own.

“We have a hard time bridging that gap. Everyone now votes the same way in particular parts of the country ... so there’s a chasm. It’s very, very challenging to overcome these problems.”

But that doesn’t mean, he said, you don’t make the effort.

Nicola Smith can be reached at

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