The White House has had to answer some uncomfortable questions over the past few days, thanks to a profile of Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, in the New York Times Magazine. Under the byline of David Samuels, the story delves into how Rhodes & Co. chose to sell President Obama’s high-priority nuclear deal with Iran. The take-aways weren’t terribly favorable.
Here’s one question that White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest faced on Friday:
On Iran, did the administration have “hand-picked” beltway insiders to push the message, to sell the message of the Iran deal to the public? And the characterization that’s out there, it has been reported that the administration misled the public in a manner as well. How does the administration respond to that characterization that the public was misled in the selling of the Iran deal?
And a follow up:
But, Josh, the characterization I’m speaking of came from a profile on your Deputy National Security Advisor, Ben Rhodes. You read that article. I’m sure you’ve had time to digest it. Do you disagree with some of the characterizations that were in that profile?
Those questions stem from a story titled, “The Aspiring Novelist Who Became Obama’s Foreign-Policy Guru.” It’s something of a hybrid piece of journalism — half-featurey look at Rhodes himself, a 30-something fellow who channeled his love of writing into a super-influential foreign policy job in the Obama White House; and half-patdown of the tactics deployed by the White House to sell its historic Iranian nuclear deal. On the latter front, here’s Samuels’s thesis:
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.
The way Samuels tells it — with key supporting quotes from Rhodes — the White House whipped up fancy talking points and fed them to its people, who in turn fed them to gullible reporters with no experience in foreign policy. The public swallowed it all. Samuels even names names: “For those in need of more traditional-seeming forms of validation, handpicked Beltway insiders like Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic and Laura Rozen of Al-Monitor helped retail the administration’s narrative,” writes Samuels. That very sentence is launching entire pieces. Goldberg is responding ferociously, bemoaning the absence of fact-checking and noting that he and Samuels have had a tiff that bears disclosing. Also, Rhodes denied to Goldberg that he’d chosen him to “retail” the Iran message.
Those matters will shake out over the coming days.
What’s not likely to fetch an answer anytime soon is why the White House did such extensive business with Samuels in the first place.
Over the weekend, the Erik Wemple Blog watched Samuels in a videotaped panel at the Hudson Institute in April 2015, back when the Iran deal was still in the “proposed” phase. The title of the session was “What’s Wrong with the Proposed Nuclear Deal with Iran?” It lasted an hour and a half, much of it filled with blowbagging by Samuels himself. He revealed himself as a name-dropper: “I had lunch last fall with a person named Jeb Bush. …” And: “The Hudson Institute was founded by Herman Kahn, a master of of what my friend Edward Luttwak calls the paradoxical logic of strategic thinking. Kahn’s work, as I’m sure many of you know, was extraordinarily important in guiding the United States through the very real dangers of the Cold War, which culturally we seem to be forgetting. And that work in turn was founded of course on the work of John von Neumann and others in game theory and related fields.”
Bolding inserted to ease transition to Samuels’s vicious hammering of the administration’s Iran deal. Speaking of the “principles” related to anti-proliferation policy dating back to the Cold War, Samuels riffed, “To find them being undone in this very rapid way, given the potential consequences of unchecked nuclear proliferation…, is and should be a terrifying thing for Americans to contemplate, whatever their feelings about this president or Republicans or Democrats. As someone who has reported in and around questions relating to nuclear programs and free-market economies, I am startled by the lack of attention and clarity that is obvious in the way these stories are being reported,” he said in the panel discussion.
Might that sound familiar to readers of the New York Times Magazine?
More stuff on the Obama administration’s approach to proliferation: Run-of-the-mill questions about Middle East policy “pale next to the prospect of unchecked nuclear proliferation in a world where the U.S. has decided that it will no longer enforce the very, very basic structures that we set in place after World War II in order to prevent the horror of a world in which many, many states, some of them led by people whose perceptions of reality depart from our own in very significant ways, are armed with weapons whose capacity to kill hundreds of thousands of people and to destroy if used in great numbers the most basic functioning of not just individual societies but of large chunks of the global system that feeds and provides basic security to billions of human beings on the planet. This is a terrifying, terrifying prospect. And that’s what’s at stake in this deal. And the inability of people to recognize that that’s what we are talking about is in part tied to the institutional collapse of the structures in which I spent a good deal of my life working,” he said, addressing the media.
Citing the possibility of new nuclear powers across the globe, Samuels said, “A president who came into office talking about a nuclear-free planet is going to be responsible for the greatest surge of nuclear proliferation that we’ve seen in a half a century or more.”
Did the White House have any idea that Samuels believed these things? It hasn’t responded to a request for comment.