The White House Pushes for its Policies, and Other Surprises from Ben Rhodes

6 May 2016, 1241 EDT

It seems that everyone (at least on the political right) is in a tizzy about the “revelations” in David Samuels’ New York Times Magazine story on Ben Rhodes. For example, Lee Smith, at the Weekly Standard, headlines “Obama’s Foreign Policy Guru Boasts of How the Administration Lied to Sell the Iran Deal.” As I’ll explain below, that’s, at best, massive hyperbole.  But what we really learned is that Ben Rhodes has a massive ego—Thomas Ricks is less kind in his assessment. We also learned that Samuels—like any reporter—wants to break big stories. Put the two together, and you come away less, not better, informed.

Let’s start with one of the passages from the story that’s receiving a lot of attention—and that Smith partially blockquotes:

As Malley and representatives of the State Department, including Wendy Sherman and Secretary of State John Kerry, engaged in formal negotiations with the Iranians, to ratify details of a framework that had already been agreed upon, Rhodes’s war room did its work on Capitol Hill and with reporters. 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.”

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.

This is, more or less, a description of what every single White House does when seeking to pass a major, and controversial, initiative. They connect with allies, they disseminate talking points, they coordinate with like-minded policy and industry groups, and they feed those groups information. Administrations create multiple information channels to the press, the public, and elected officials.The Obama Administration did this for the Affordable Care Act. The Bush Administration did this for its massive tax cuts, for the Iraq War, and, unsuccessfully, in its efforts to privatize Social Security.

Rhodes is basically bragging that he was very, very good at it. He was so good at it, that he agrees with Samuels about the “onslaught of freshly minted experts” he created. But who were they? Bloggers? Twenty-somethings at the Center for American Progress? At some level, this is par for the course. We saw, say, under-qualified interns and junior researchers at places like the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, astroturf right-wing organizations, and newly established “centers” and “institutes” cheerleading for  the Iraq War and the wisdom of massive tax cuts.

But this isn’t simply a “tu quoque.”  This is how things have to work in big policy pushes because there’s a fight going on, and the opponents of the policy are doing the exact same thing through their own policy and advocacy networks. Does anyone think it is remotely an accident that the opponents of the Iran Deal converged on the same arguments? They were all reading, and talking to, one another. That’s how policy gets debated in functional democracies.

Moreover, remember that, in Rhodes’ worldview, the foreign-policy establishment is the “blob.” It isn’t surprising that he would discount the extensive expertise and knowledge of the principals at places like Ploughshares. Nor that he would claim credit not just for running an successful policy campaign, but also apparently agree when Samuels starts talking about “freshly minted experts.”

[Update: Cheryl Rofer storyfied her own Tweets on this subject, and incorporated a variety of other ones, including my own. Note that, among other things, Cheryl and Jeffrey Lewis take appropriate umbrage about being characterized as “freshly minted experts.” The fact that Samuels doesn’t know that they, along with many others, are deeply knowledgeable experts with a long-standing presence on social media, says a lot of what you need to know about his claim about experturffing.]

As Ricks notes, the only thing mildly shocking about all this is how “politicized” foreign policy has become—but that, too, seems ahistorical. Foreign policy has long been highly politicized, whether involving the Contras, Apartheid, the Soviet Union, Somalia, Vietnam, or even FDR’s attempts to support the allies prior to Pearl Harbor.

Indeed, part of what seems to be going on is Samuels’ desire to put forth his own view of the ‘transformed’ landscape created by social media and build up Rhodes as a Rove-esque super genius: “He [Rhodes] 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.”

When we get beneath all of this, we find exactly one claim advanced by the White House in support of the Iran Deal that, contra right-wing handwaving, constitutes a deception.

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.

Did the American people have that impression? I have no idea. Everyone in the policy community knew that Obama had long sought a deal. He even, you know, talked about his desire to negotiate with Iran in the 2008 campaign. The fact that negotiations started before the 2013 election was common knowledge; as was that the overall process even predated the Obama Administration.

So, in conclusion,

  1. The Obama Administration sold the nuclear agreement with Iran pretty much the same way that the Bush Administration sold the Iraq War, but with no indication—as of yet—that its arguments for the wisdom of the deal were built on sand;
  2. The only offense was, in the White House statement announcing the deal, referring to the 2013-2015 rounds of negotiations without invoking the prior rounds;
  3. The overall strategy matches every other strategy that supporters and opponents of major policies use to get their way; and
  4. Ben Rhodes thinks very highly of himself. David Samuels agrees.

Color me underwhelmed.