Remember that time the White House deceived those gullible Americans about the Iran deal? Haha, good times!
That was the undeniable tone of a recent New York Times profile of President Barack Obama‘s national security advisor Ben Rhodes. In the profile, Rhodes goes on at length about his failed attempt to become a novelist, and how he sees his work at the White House as essentially the same kind of storytelling and narrative-weaving. And when crafting his non-fictional storylines involved selling the American people fiction, well, Rhodes was more than up to the task.
Apologies for the long block quote, but it really does need to be read to be believed:
Rhodes’s innovative campaign to sell the Iran deal is likely to be a model for how future administrations explain foreign policy to Congress and the public. The way in which most Americans have heard the story of the Iran deal presented — that the Obama administration began seriously engaging with Iranian officials in 2013 in order to take advantage of a new political reality in Iran, which came about because of elections that brought moderates to power in that country — was largely manufactured for the purpose for selling the deal. 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. Obama’s closest advisers always understood him to be eager to do a deal with Iran as far back as 2012, and even since the beginning of his presidency…
In the narrative that Rhodes shaped, the “story” of the Iran deal began in 2013, when a “moderate” faction inside the Iranian regime led by Hassan Rouhani beat regime “hard-liners” in an election and then began to pursue a policy of “openness,” which included a newfound willingness to negotiate the dismantling of its illicit nuclear-weapons program. The president set out the timeline himself in his speech announcing the nuclear deal on July 14, 2015: “Today, after two years of negotiations, the United States, together with our international partners, has achieved something that decades of animosity has not.” While the president’s statement was technically accurate — there had in fact been two years of formal negotiations leading up to the signing of the J.C.P.O.A. — it was also actively misleading, because the most meaningful part of the negotiations with Iran had begun in mid-2012, many months before Rouhani and the “moderate” camp were chosen in an election among candidates handpicked by Iran’s supreme leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The idea that there was a new reality in Iran was politically useful to the Obama 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. By eliminating the fuss about Iran’s nuclear program, the administration hoped to eliminate a source of structural tension between the two countries, which would create the space for America to disentangle itself from its established system of alliances with countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel and Turkey. With one bold move, the administration would effectively begin the process of a large-scale disengagement from the Middle East.
It’d be one thing if the New York Times dug through archives, spoke with anonymous government officials in hushed tones, and independently came to the conclusion that the White House was lying to Americans about the purpose and history behind the Iran deal. That factoid alone ought to be the front page headline in papers across the country rather than consigned to page 44 of the Sunday magazine.
To say nothing of that last paragraph, where we learn that the long-term policy goal of the administration is to “disengage” from Israel and our Arab allies and wash our hands of the Middle East. In line with that policy, the purpose of the Iran deal is not to protect our allies, but to abandon them. That’s not just a repudiation of forty years of American policy, it’s a vindication of everything critics have claimed about Obama’s policy for years.
But a sitting White House official is openly admitting all this in an on-the-record interview with a journalist for America’s most prominent media institution. He does so without a hint of shame or any sense that these admissions might face a backlash. Rhodes’ laying out of his many deceits reads less like a mea culpa and more like a comic book villain’s monologue after he knows the heroes are too late to stop his plan. The arrogance and lack of accountability here is simply breathtaking.
What galls me the most is that Rhodes wasn’t talking about some retired talking points on a bygone issue. I guarantee if you asked Obama himself about the Iran deal tomorrow, he would rattle off all the same talking points Rhodes blows up here. Rhodes didn’t admit the administration lied to us, he admitted that they’re actively lying to us.
As it turns out, they have help. Rhodes told the Times all about how the administration propped up hundreds of foreign policy “experts” for reporters to rely on, all of whom actually just parroted the administration’s talking points.
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. “We created an echo chamber,” he admitted, when I asked him to explain the onslaught of freshly minted experts cheerleading for the deal. “They were saying things that validated what we had given them to say.”
Worse, Rhodes’ assistant goes on to tell the Times all about how certain people in the media could always be counted on to help sell their fictions.
In this environment, Rhodes has become adept at ventriloquizing many people at once. Ned Price, Rhodes’s assistant, gave me a primer on how it’s done. The easiest way for the White House to shape the news, he explained, is from the briefing podiums, each of which has its own dedicated press corps. “But then there are sort of these force multipliers,” he said, adding, “We have our compadres, I will reach out to a couple people, and you know I wouldn’t want to name them — ”
“I can name them,” I said, ticking off a few names of prominent Washington reporters and columnists who often tweet in sync with White House messaging.
Price laughed. “I’ll say, ‘Hey, look, some people are spinning this narrative that this is a sign of American weakness,’ ” he continued, “but — ”
“In fact it’s a sign of strength!” I said, chuckling.
“And I’ll give them some color,” Price continued, “and the next thing I know, lots of these guys are in the dot-com publishing space, and have huge Twitter followings, and they’ll be putting this message out on their own.”
It’s apparently now a laughing matter that some of the most prominent reporters in Washington are nothing more than mouthpieces for the administration. I remember when it was considered a journalistic scandal that the media might not have tough enough on George W. Bush‘s claims about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But now, the fact that the White House is openly colluding with prominent journalists (and this is well-known enough that a Times reporter can rattle off their names) is greeted with a shrug.
Despite these multiple damning admissions being published in a widely-read national outlet, the Rhodes profile has been essentially ignored by the media. Conservative outlets like The Weekly Standard and the Washington Free Beacon have covered the story, but not a single major outlet has touched it. Again, it’s hard to imagine a Bush administration official could have given an interview where they even implied they actively misled the public without it dominating cable and print news alike.
I’m reminded of the initial apathy the traditional media had towards the Jonathan Gruber story, another instance where a key administration ally shamelessly bragged about deceiving the public. They basically had to be dragged kicking and screaming into covering Gruber after more than eight damaging videos spread like wildfire across conservative outlets. Even then, the story received only sparse coverage until Republican congressmen held hearings on the matter.
It’d be easy (lazy, really) to chalk this up entirely to a liberal bias. There is a degree of that to be sure; many reporters probably see Obama’s inclination towards disengagement from the Middle East and making peace with Iran as admirable goals, and his deceit as justifiable. There’s also probably a degree of elitism at play; the average American’s understanding of foreign policy just isn’t as sophisticated as us elites, the thinking goes, so naturally they have to be misled.
But I think the real reason Rhodes’ interview hasn’t gotten more play is because most journalists are so jaded and so cynical, they failed to see that the admission was even all that newsworthy. Everyone knows the White House lies to the public and reporters, everyone knows that certain reporters are too close to the administration, everyone knows there’s a huge gulf between Obama’s rhetoric on Iran and Israel and his actual beliefs. Having a White House official come out and say so was like Clay Aiken coming out of the closet: you were only shocked if you weren’t paying attention.
That’s the real scandal here: not that the White House lied, not that they admitted to lying, not that they admitted that the media and “experts” helped them lie. The real story here is that this is all so typical, most Washington insiders failed to realize this was something that the average American would even be outraged by.
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This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.