It isn’t often that a member of a presidential administration volunteers to deconstruct the entire image that administration has built for itself. It’s even more rare for the person who volunteers to do such a thing has been directly responsible for crafting that image from the beginning. Yet, that’s exactly what we have in the extraordinary piece New York Times Magazine recently published about “the aspiring novelist who became (Barack) Obama’s foreign-policy guru.”
That erstwhile novelist is Ben Rhodes, whose official title is Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications. Another way of describing his job is: spin-meister for national security issues. What makes the piece about Rhodes extraordinary — it’s certainly not the stylistic aspects — is how transparent Rhodes and his colleagues are about their efforts to obfuscate.
The piece has been widely discussed for a few reasons, notably the Rhodes quote about how the people covering international affairs even for many major publications are “27-year-olds” who “literally know nothing” — the implication being that the administration can tell them whatever it wants about what’s going on overseas, including the wisdom and consequences of its own policies, and they’ll buy them. This is a bit unfair to 27-year-olds, because the piece makes abundantly clear that even media voices of an older vintage are in on it, too, relaying thoughts from the “echo chamber” of “freshly minted experts cheerleading for the deal” at “think tanks and on social media.”
The overwhelming impression given by the piece is that the image is the substance with this administration, at least when it comes to foreign policy.
Recall the mantra, as the Iran deal was being sold to hesitant Democrats and a skeptical public, that it was crucial to building up the “moderates” who’d recently won elections in Iran. Some of us pointed out at the time that this was a misnomer since, whatever the positions of those elected, those truly in charge of the country were the hard-line clerics and military officers. As it turns out, the alleged “moderates” weren’t even in place during the crux of the negotiations:
“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 (agreement) — 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.”
This account is supported later in the piece with more details about the time frame of the talks, which makes perfectly clear the Obama administration did not wait for any moderation in Iran to begin exploring a deal to remove sanctions. This is actually more logical than the administration’s official explanation, given how dubious it is that the new regime — “chosen in an election among candidates handpicked by Iran’s supreme leader,” who most certainly isn’t a moderate — is any different from its predecessors.
Of course, as we can see from the way Iran continues to test ballistic missiles, as recently as this week, the very idea the regime is “moderate” is completely bogus. Considering how this administration showed it was ready to upend a longtime, bipartisan consensus on U.S. policy toward Iran without any changes from the latter, it’s no wonder Tehran feels these provocations won’t cost anything.
There’s more worth reading in the piece, including a send-up of the “sign of strength” line that is parroted by the administration’s apologists from time to time when one of its foreign policies blows up in its face. Give it 20 minutes of your time.