The very long profile of Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes at New York Times Magazine is probably meant to be flattering, but it’s actually a horrifying look at the train wreck of Obama foreign policy.
Rhodes knows absolutely nothing about the subject – he got his job because he is really good at lying. He is very proud of lying outrageously to get the Iran nuclear deal passed. And from the perspective he offers, much of Obama’s foreign policy looks like an extended temper tantrum against the domestic political adversaries he hates.
Like Obama, Rhodes is a storyteller who uses a writer’s tools to advance an agenda that is packaged as politics but is often quite personal. He is adept at constructing overarching plotlines with heroes and villains, their conflicts and motivations supported by flurries of carefully chosen adjectives, quotations and leaks from named and unnamed senior officials.
He is the master shaper and retailer of Obama’s foreign-policy narratives, at a time when the killer wave of social media has washed away the sand castles of the traditional press. His ability to navigate and shape this new environment makes him a more effective and powerful extension of the president’s will than any number of policy advisers or diplomats or spies.
His lack of conventional real-world experience of the kind that normally precedes responsibility for the fate of nations — like military or diplomatic service, or even a master’s degree in international relations, rather than creative writing — is still startling.
The Americans killed in Benghazi certainly seemed startled. (Rhodes, by the way, was a key player in whipping up the blizzard of B.S. that covered Obama and Hillary Clinton’s failure in Benghazi, by making it look like an out-of-the-blue “demonstration” no one could have predicted, instead of the carefully planned terrorist attack it was.)
The “storyteller” appellation is more-or-less literal in Rhodes’ case, because he describes himself as a fiction writer and aspiring novelist who decided “maybe I want to try to write about international affairs” after 9/11.
The most grimly amusing thing about the NYT Magazine piece is that it expects readers to be delighted by Rhodes’ stranger-than-fiction journey to the White House, when everyone outside the offices of the New York Times will look at the smoldering ruins of the post-Obama world and find precious little to be delighted about.
It explains a lot about the global Obama disaster to know that he, and Rhodes, hold the “foreign-policy establishment” (i.e. the people who could have explained why their Big Ideas were idiotic) with utter contempt. Rhodes calls them “The Blob,” and says they “whine incessantly about the collapse of the American security order in Europe and the Middle East.” That’s like saying the people trapped in a burning building are “whining” about the arsonist who set the blaze.
Interestingly, Rhodes includes Hillary Clinton in The Blob, along with old Clinton hand Leon Panetta, former head of the C.I.A.
Panetta pops up in the NYT piece to poke holes in the fiction Obama and Rhodes spun around Iran, confirming that his C.I.A. never thought there was a meaningful division of power in Tehran between “hardliners” and “moderates.” Rhodes helped Obama sell a lie about “moderate” president Hassan Rouhani’s election creating a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the nuclear deal, when the process actually began under his “hardline” predecessor, Mahmoud Amadinejad.
Panetta also admits he was wrong about Obama being prepared to halt Iranian atomic bomb development at all costs – something Obama constantly promises the American people, and which Panetta promised the Israelis at a crucial juncture.
Everything about the Iran deal was a fiction, a fanciful story Rhodes wrote, and unlike his novels, he had no problems whatsoever finding a publisher. If his view of “The Blob” makes Obama’s team sound like snotty teenagers determined to do the opposite of whatever the old farts wanted, his take on the media is astoundingly contemptuous. You won’t find many right-wing media critics who think less of the Obama-friendly media than Obama’s foreign-policy spinmeister.
Rhodes singled out a key example to me one day, laced with the brutal contempt that is a hallmark of his private utterances. “All these newspapers used to have foreign bureaus,” he 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.”
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.”
These guys are literally telling the New York Times that they regard the Obama-crazed media as a closet full of ventriloquist dummies – so lazy they will run whatever press release the White House slips them as if it were independently-researched news, willing to echo any of this Administration’s narratives without question, or even much prompting… and they’re not even slightly worried that anyone in the media will take exception.
NYT author David Samuels does not seem to think the media herd will rouse itself to anger, either:
This is something different from old-fashioned spin, which tended to be an art best practiced in person. In a world where experienced reporters competed for scoops and where carrying water for the White House was a cause for shame, no matter which party was in power, it was much harder to sustain a “narrative” over any serious period of time. Now the most effectively weaponized 140-character idea or quote will almost always carry the day, and it is very difficult for even good reporters to necessarily know where the spin is coming from or why.
Rhodes knew exactly which media sock puppets would fit most comfortably over his fingers, and he knew his “force multipliers” were more effective tools for herding the American people around than traditional methods.
In the NYT piece, Obama hatchet man David Axelrod moans that “the bully pulpit by and large doesn’t exist anymore.” On the contrary, the bully pulpit is right where it’s always been, but it’s too honest and straightforward for the likes of Obama and Rhodes. The line between news, opinion, and propaganda has blurred during the Obama era, and it was done very deliberately.
That line will never be redrawn, if Samuels’ prediction that “Rhodes’s innovative campaign to sell the Iran deal” becomes 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. “It’s the center of the arc,” Rhodes explained to me two days after the deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, was implemented.
Copious details of how Rhodes marketed his fiction are presented, and a few favorite “force multiplier” sock puppets are named, including Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic and Laura Rozen of Al-Monitor. The story also notes that Obama’s pose of cool distance from the Iran nuclear deal is a lie – it’s something he desperately wanted, and he worked very hard to get it, including personal involvement with the spin-crafting.
Perhaps the most hair-raising part of the NYT piece comes when Rhodes claims the Iran deal wasn’t really a deception… it’s just that he has no idea what’s going to happen next:
When I suggested that all this dark metafictional play seemed a bit removed from rational debate over America’s future role in the world, Rhodes nodded. “In the absence of rational discourse, we are going to discourse the [expletive] out of this,” he said. “We had test drives to know who was going to be able to carry our message effectively, and how to use outside groups like Ploughshares, the Iran Project and whomever else. So we knew the tactics that worked.” He is proud of the way he sold the Iran deal. “We drove them crazy,” he said of the deal’s opponents.
Yet Rhodes bridled at the suggestion that there has been anything deceptive about the way that the agreement itself was sold. “Look, with Iran, in a weird way, these are state-to-state issues. They’re agreements between governments. Yes, I would prefer that it turns out that Rouhani and Zarif” — Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister — “are real reformers who are going to be steering this country into the direction that I believe it can go in, because their public is educated and, in some respects, pro-American. But we are not betting on that.”
In fact, Rhodes’s passion seems to derive not from any investment in the technical specifics of sanctions or centrifuge arrays, or any particular optimism about the future course of Iranian politics and society. Those are matters for the negotiators and area specialists. Rather, it derived from his own sense of the urgency of radically reorienting American policy in the Middle East in order to make the prospect of American involvement in the region’s future wars a lot less likely. When I asked whether the prospect of this same kind of far-reaching spin campaign being run by a different administration is something that scares him, he admitted that it does. “I mean, I’d prefer a sober, reasoned public debate, after which members of Congress reflect and take a vote,” he said, shrugging. “But that’s impossible.”
That’s a breathtaking statement of both ignorance and arrogance – a display of contempt for the American people, and their elected representatives, to go along with Rhodes’ low opinion of his media sock puppets. Obama and his aides had no idea what they were doing in foreign policy, but their disdain for the American system, and by extension the American public, led them to believe all forms of deception and skulduggery were justified to obtain the outcomes they desired.