May 6 2016
Did you sometimes feel the administration was being less than candid in selling the nuclear deal with Iran to the public?
The New York Times has posted an amazing Sunday magazine profile of Ben Rhodes, President Obama's Deputy National Security Adviser. Rhodes, who originally aspired to be a fiction writer, is so close to President Obama that he confesses to journalist David Samuels that he no longer can tell where Obama ends and he begins. White House insiders talk about the "mind meld" between Obama and Rhodes.
A writer who crafts many of the president's speeches, Rhodes helps the president "shape the narrative" in international affairs. The astonishing insight to be gleaned from the profile (and spotted for me by Lee Smith of the Weekly Standard) is this: the administration lied to sell the Iran nuclear arms agreement to the public.
The administration claimed that it only opened negotiations with Iran when the allegedly moderate Hassan Rouhani was elected president. The administration took advantage of this apparent thawing. That doesn't seem to be what happened:
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.
It was Rhodes' idea to frame the deal as a choice between peace and war--it was his "go-to move and proved to be a winning argument." It wasn't true, but Rhodes knew how to sell it to an ignorant media:
"All these newspapers used to have foreign bureaus," Rhodes said. "Now they don't. They call us to explain to them what's happening in Moscow and Cairo. Most of the outlets are reporting on world events from Washington. The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That's a sea change. They literally know nothing."
A striking passage concerns Rhodes, on the day of President Obama's last State of the Union address, dealing with news that Iran had captured American sailors:
Standing in his front office before the State of the Union, Rhodes quickly does the political math on the breaking Iran story. “Now they’ll show scary pictures of people praying to the supreme leader,” he predicts, looking at the screen. Three beats more, and his brain has spun a story line to stanch the bleeding. He turns to Price. “We’re resolving this, because we have relationships,” he says.
Rhodes is thirty-eight. His brother is president of CBS News. Lee Smith of the Weekly Standard comments:
Samuels's profile is an amazing piece of writing about the Holden Caulfield of American foreign policy. He's a sentimental adolescent with literary talent (Rhodes published one short story before his mother's connections won him a job in the world of foreign policy), and high self regard, who thinks that everyone else is a phony.
Those readers who found Jeffrey Goldberg's picture of Obama in his March Atlantic profile refreshing for the president's willingness to insult American allies publicly will be similarly cheered here by Rhodes's boast of deceiving American citizens, lawmakers, and allies over the Iran deal.
We knew that the administration wasn't being candid with us about the Iran deal, but the duplicity is still stunning.