A lengthy New York Times Magazine profile of Ben Rhodes, President Obama’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, portrays him as a spinmeister contemptuous of the foreign policy establishment who fed credulous journalists a misleading narrative to sell the Iran nuclear deal to the American people.
According to writer David Samuels, Rhodes oversaw a “war room” whose task was to sell the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to Congress ahead of crucial votes last fall that failed to kill the agreement.
“In the spring of last year, legions of arms-control experts began popping up at think tanks and on social media, and then became key sources for hundreds of often-clueless reporters,” Samuels wrote.
“We created an echo chamber,” he quoted Rhodes as admitting. “They were saying things that validated what we had given them to say.”
According to Samuels’s piece, the strategy included the White House’s TheIranDeal Twitter feed. Rhodes used groups like the Ploughshares Fund, which advocates the elimination of nuclear weapons and lobbied for the JCPOA.
“We drove them crazy,” Samuels quotes Rhodes as saying of the opponents of the nuclear deal.
Samuels wrote that Rhodes does not think much of the journalists the war room was using to spread its narrative: “The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns,” Rhodes was quoted as telling him. “They literally know nothing.”
According to the article, the administration put out a deliberately misleading narrative about the way the nuclear negotiations came about, linking them to the rise in 2013 of the “moderate” President Hasan Rouhani at the expense of “hardliners,” ushering in a supposedly new political reality in Iran.
In fact in 2012 State Department director of policy planning Jake Sullivan – a close aide of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – began holding talks with the Iranians in Oman and elsewhere, and he and Deputy Secretary of State William Burns drew up the framework of what would eventually become the JCPOA three months before the election that brought Rouhani to office.
Obama was known by insiders to have wanted to make a deal with Iran from the beginning of his presidency in 2009, but the idea that the rise of “moderates” provided the opportunity was “largely manufactured for the purpose for selling the deal,” Samuels wrote.
Samuels argued that the misleading narrative was useful for the administration.
“By obtaining broad public currency for the thought that there was a significant split in the regime, and that the administration was reaching out to moderate-minded Iranians who wanted peaceful relations with their neighbors and with America, Obama was able to evade what might have otherwise been a divisive but clarifying debate over the actual policy choices that his administration was making,” he wrote.
He characterized the approach as part of a broader strategy – helping the U.S. to extricate itself from existing regional alliances with countries like Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Turkey, with the ultimate goal of U.S. “disengagement from the Middle East.”
It’s an objective, Samuels said, that Rhodes – a determined critic of the Iraq war – views with a sense of “urgency.”
The profile depicts Rhodes as being comfortable in spinning the issue to the American people.
“I mean, I’d prefer a sober, reasoned public debate, after which members of Congress reflect and take a vote,” Samuels quotes Rhodes as telling him. “But that’s impossible.”
Rhodes holds a dim view of the foreign policy establishment, according to Samuels, referring to it contemptuously as “the Blob,” and including in that grouping Hillary Clinton; Obama’s first defense secretary Robert Gates; and “editors and reporters at The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Yorker and elsewhere.”