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The Times Profile That Roiled Washington

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Ben Rhodes, Obama’s foreign policy Svengali? (Getty Images)

There are people out there who believe that the person who wrote Ronald Reagan’s Berlin Wall speech (“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”) is responsible for the final outcome of the Cold War. I merely note this to highlight the fact that people often exaggerate the impact of individuals on events or on the policy of nations. Sometimes they choose surprising people as the focus of their attention. At times, I think journalists may be prone to picking press secretaries and speechwriters simply because they have so much contact with them.

A journalist named David Samuels published a profile of National Security Council spokesman and Obama speechwriter Ben Rhodes in The New York Times Magazine last month. Washington has not been the same since. The 9,500-word article has numerous elements. Much of the piece is fluff and filler, or perhaps I should say, stuff that does not particularly interest me. Much of the discussion surrounding the piece focuses on how full of himself Rhodes is, which I suspect is not so unusual in Washington, and on his low opinion of the foreign policy establishment and the Washington press corps.

Noah Millman of the American Conservative, who identifies himself as a friend of Samuels, says the real point of the piece is that the Obama administration is trying to disengage from the Middle East and has not prepared for the possibly chaotic consequences that the withdrawal of American power will produce. That is actually an interesting argument, but it is not the part that has grabbed Washington’s attention.

In a follow-up article, Samuels suggests that the core of the story is whether it is possible to discuss policy rationally in the social-media age. Samuels sadly acknowledges that this theme, too, has largely been overlooked, albeit with some notable exceptions. The substantive portion that has gained the most attention has to do with the selling of the Iran deal.

The basic elements of this story, if I understand it correctly, are that:

  1. Ben Rhodes, “a manipulative spin-doctor and a deeply honest, creative person” (according to Samuels’s follow-up story), created a deceptive narrative about origins and nature of the Iran deal.
  2. He used this narrative to manipulate (or persuade) the broad public into supporting the deal, using among his instruments sympathetic journalists and “an onslaught of freshly minted experts.”
  3. Public pressure forced Congress into backing something that it did not see as being in the nation’s best interest. The main problem with the story is that, regardless of what Rhodes may or may not have said, it is not at all what happened.

A Deceptive Narrative?

In his follow-up Samuels says that Rhodes “believes strongly in the policies he spins for.” Yet deception is a central theme. In the profile he describes Rhodes’s narrative of the Iran deal as “largely manufactured for the purpose of selling the deal.” He also includes this curious assertion: “Even where the particulars of that story are true, the implications that readers and viewers are encouraged to take away from those particulars are often misleading or false.”

This refers to Samuels’s notion that the narrative implied that the negotiations really only began after a moderate was elected president of Iran in 2013, when in fact Obama’s envoys had already talked to Iranian officials prior to that. Indeed, this is the only specific example of deception that Samuels offers. Its significance evidently strikes him as so obvious that he does not bother to explain what makes it deceptive (he even repeats that it is “technically accurate”) or why we should care. He makes a point of confirming with former CIA director Leon Panetta that Ayatollah Khamenei remains ultimately in charge but draws no conclusions from that, nor does he specify who he thinks might find it surprising.

For some reason, he believes that the case for the nuclear deal requires that people believe the Iranian regime is more divided than it is. In fact, Iran’s position on negotiations did change after the election of Rouhani, whether or not Samuels wants to believe he is a real reformer and regardless of whether Khamenei is still ultimately in charge. If there is an argument for not negotiating with a hardline regime for a deal to restrain its nuclear development Samuels does not make it. If he believes that you can only negotiate such a deal with a regime that you trust, then he misunderstands the deal and its purpose.

Manipulating the Public?

Samuels accuses Rhodes of organizing an “echo chamber” of gullible journalists and “freshly minted experts” to spread the administration’s narrative and persuade the public of the need for this deal. Needless to say, neither the journalists nor the experts involved were pleased with that characterization. The experts, who might be fairly characterized as an arms-control lobby (and whose expertise in these matters has been well established for years), have in many cases been advocating such an approach since before Obama became president.

Did the administration encourage like-minded journalists and specialists to speak out in favor of the deal? Of course, it did. That is, in fact, one part of how significant policies are sold. It is not unique to this deal, this administration, or the social-media era. As Fred Kaplan put it: “Did Rhodes organize this campaign? Yes, just as Franklin Roosevelt sold U.S. entry into World War II, Richard Nixon sold the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, Jimmy Carter sold SALT II and the Panama Canal Treaty, Ronald Reagan sold the treaty banning intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe, and on it goes. Rhodes is operating in a different era, but sales have always been part of policy, especially controversial policies. Some sales jobs are slicker than others; some policies are easier to sell than others.”

Political scientist Dan Nexon put it in bolder terms: “That’s how policy gets debated in functional democracies.” It would be objectionable if the story were false or deceptive, but it was not. By the way, Samuels makes no reference to the Republicans’ inviting the Israeli prime minister to address a joint session of Congress on their behalf. Indeed, coordinated messaging is, generally speaking, something at which the Republicans excel.

Forcing the Treaty on Congress?

The ultimate effect of this campaign, Samuels suggests, was the manipulation of public opinion to pressure Congress into approving the treaty. First, he asserts that the administration’s narrative dominated the discourse around the treaty over the summer of 2015. That may be how he remembers it. Daniel Drezner reports that opponents massively outspent proponents on lobbying. Personally, I recall a lot of people asserting or implying that the deal actually allows Iran to have a nuclear bomb in 15 years. That I consider deceptive. Specific restriction lapse after 15–25 years, but the prohibition on nuclear weapons and the inspection regime to detect any diversion of nuclear material for military purposes continue in perpetuity.

Beyond that, however, the impact of the campaign on public opinion and the subsequent impact of public opinion on Congress are simply assumed. Yet the Pew Research Center found that public support for the deal declined over the course of the debate. In fact the public was so disengaged that the percentage of people who reported even being aware of the agreement declined between July and September 2015.

In further support of the notion that the public was disengaged, some pollsters found that the outcome of polls varied drastically depending on the wording of the question. The deal won majority support among Republicans, Democrats, and independents when the poll accurately described what was in it. On the other hand, Fox News was able to achieve 84% disapproval by asking people whether Iran should be allowed to get nuclear weapons in ten years.

Obviously, Congress was not coerced into backing the agreement by a wave of voters demanding action. The specific arrangement that Congress made, however, is fascinating in its own way. With both houses led by Republicans since the beginning of 2015, it objected to the notion that the president could sign the deal without any congressional input. Rather than vote on a resolution of approval, however, Senators Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Ben Cardin (D-Md.) of the Foreign Relations Committee agreed that the deal would go through unless both houses passed a bill of disapproval. In the Senate, disapproval would require 60 votes; in the House a simple majority. The 60-vote threshold is understandable: since Obama became president, the Republican minority in the Senate had filibustered virtually every bill that came through.

Now that the Republicans held the majority, the Democrats could be expected to do the same, especially on such an important measure. The fascinating part is that they would vote on disapproval. Thus in the event that Congress was unable to do anything—not an unlikely prospect these days—the bill would go through. If the Republicans succeeded in disapproving the bill, the president could veto their resolution and the bill would go through (unless they could muster two-thirds of each house to override the veto). Clearly the deck was stacked in favor of the bill going through, and the Senate agreed to this arrangement by a vote of 98 to 1.

When the vote came, to the surprise of many, the Senate Republicans were unable to muster 60 votes, effectively putting a quick end to the issue. The agreement would go through. Outraged Republicans in the House discarded the agreed arrangement and voted down a resolution of approval (rather than disapproval), but the measure had no effect other than to show their displeasure.

Why did the Senate Republicans agree to such an arrangement? I cannot say, but I cannot help but notice one consequence. Arranging it the way they did allowed Republicans to denounce the president, the treaty, and the entire process, thereby firing up their base voters, without actually threatening the treaty, undermining U.S. foreign policy, or risking national security (which of course is the opposite of what they claimed to believe). It is difficult to accept that all of this was done just for show, but no other explanation makes sense. In keeping with this notion, Republicans repeatedly talked of forcing the president to veto their disapproval as if that were some sort of victory. The Iran deal would still go through, but evidently they would have scored points.

Ben Rhodes and the Phony Scandal Machine

One retired diplomat, having read the profile, complained that Rhodes confuses the international situation with the story about the international situation. I see it a bit differently. Rhodes is focused on the story because that is his job; he is the spokesman. It is Samuels who confuses what Rhodes does with the actual diplomacy.

For their part, Republicans have opted to use the Rhodes profile as additional fodder for their eternal search for an Obama administration scandal. The conservative press depicts a “deepening scandal” surrounding Rhodes’s comments. Three Republican senators have demanded that Rhodes be fired because “he spearheaded the charge to mislead elected lawmakers and the American people.” They also objected to his suggestion that they were incapable of engaging in a “sober, reasoned public debate,” although their demand does not seem to strengthen that case.

The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee promptly held a hearing called “White House Narratives on the Iran Nuclear Deal.” Without any hint of irony, the committee mobilized three like-minded experts from conservative think-tanks to create an echo chamber, even though its purpose was supposedly to find the truth, not to sell a policy. (The experts also complained about the administration’s intention to abandon Middle Eastern allies, which was supposedly revealed by the profile, but this something that Samuels says; Rhodes is merely quoted as saying that the deal was an opportunity to resolve an issue with an adversary by a means other than conflict.)

To be sure, Rhodes was also invited to the hearing, but the White House declined to make a ranking White House staffer available, citing the president’s need to preserve “candid advice and counsel” and also noting that administrative officials had already attended more than 30 hearings and confidential briefings on the Iran deal. Perhaps they also doubted the committee’s sincerity.

 

Author

Scott Monje
Scott Monje

Scott C. Monje, Ph.D., is senior editor of the Encyclopedia Americana (Grolier Online) and author of The Central Intelligence Agency: A Documentary History. He has taught classes on international, comparative, and U.S. politics at Rutgers University, New York University (SCPS), and Purchase College, SUNY.

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