by Derek Davison
A May 5 New York Times Magazine profile of Ben Rhodes, Barack Obama’s Deputy National Security Advisor for strategic communications, has revived the debate over the negotiations that led to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Specifically, the piece highlights what appear to be efforts by Rhodes and his communications team to obfuscate the nature and goals of the negotiations and to use reporters and sympathetic arms control experts as an “echo chamber” supporting the White House’s messaging.
“Echo chamber,” in fact, is a direct quote from Rhodes:
As [National Security Council member Robert] 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.
As reporter David Samuels tells the story, Rhodes and his team were responsible for deceiving Americans on at least two key points about the nuclear talks. First, Samuels argues that the White House has suggested that negotiations with Iran didn’t begin until after the election of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in June 2013, but in fact secret U.S.-Iran talks had begun months before that. Second, Samuels contends that the administration deliberately framed its engagement with Iran around Iran’s nuclear program to obscure the true focus: altering America’s current alliance structure in order to “create the space” for Obama’s desired (according to Samuels) “disengagement from the Middle East.”
The latter point is boilerplate language from opponents of the Iran talks, and in the profile Samuels makes the assertion without any supporting quotes from anyone at all, let alone anyone in the administration. There has been and still is little actual evidence to support it. The former point is simply spin. The fact that negotiations between the U.S. and Iran predated Rouhani’s election has already been reported, for example last year by Al-Monitor’s Laura Rozen. Samuels, however, dismisses Rozen’s considerable work covering the nuclear talks as little more than a White House “RSS feed.” The White House may not have publicized those pre-Rouhani talks, but that would hardly be the first or most prominent case of a presidential administration trying to conduct diplomacy in secret.
All in the Timing
Samuels’s piece comes at a critical time for the JCPOA. The ongoing difficulty of Iranian banks to reintegrate with the dollar-based global financial system threatens to undermine any economic benefit that Iran was supposed to accrue from the nuclear deal. With Rouhani facing what will undoubtedly be a difficult reelection campaign next year, the future direction of Iranian politics may hinge on whether the Iranian electorate sees that his nuclear gambit has actually paid off. Opponents of the deal want to deny Iranian banks the ability to conduct transactions in dollars as a way to maintain most of the sanctions de facto even as they’ve been removed de jure.
The more salacious elements of Samuels’s piece give new fodder to the Bomb Bomb Iran club. And lest you think I’m being hyperbolic with that description, here’s Samuels himself, in 2009, making the “rational” (his word) case for Israel to bomb Iran:
Bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities is the surest way for Israel to restore the image of strength and unpredictability that made it valuable to the United States after 1967 while also eliminating Iran as a viable partner for America’s favor. The fact that this approach may be the international-relations equivalent of keeping your boyfriend by shooting the other cute girl he likes in the head is an indicator of the difference between high-school romance and alliances between states—and hardly an argument for why it won’t work. Shorn of its nuclear program and unable to retaliate against Israel through conventional military means, Iran would be shown to be a paper tiger—to the not-so-secret delight of America’s Sunni Arab allies in the Gulf. Iran’s local clients like Syria and Hamas would be likely to distance themselves from an over-leveraged Persian would-be hegemon whose ruined nuclear facilities would be visible on Google Earth.
In April 2015, Samuels participated in a panel discussion at the Hudson Institute called “What’s Wrong with the Proposed Nuclear Deal with Iran?” On that panel, JCPOA opponent and Hudson senior fellow Michael Doran talked about the Obama administration’s “fundamentally false” story about the nuclear talks, which seems to be the framing that Samuels adopted when writing his profile of Rhodes. Samuels was on the panel to offer his opinion on how deal opponents could more effectively get their message across to the American public. This, of course, is exactly what Rhodes was doing, once you strip away the innuendo in Samuels’s profile, on the other side of the debate. Here’s part of what Samuels said back then:
There’s been a real failure to frame the stakes of this deal, what it means, not just for American MidEast policy, but for America’s global posture and what the effect [will be] on the structures that we’ve built over 70 years to enforce a relatively successful regime of non-proliferation—the success of that regime being judged by the fact that no one has used nuclear weapons since we did it. That is something that we take for granted now. I’m suggesting that there’s nothing inevitable about that. That happened because we did specific things and we backed the things that we wanted to do up with very significant applications of political and economic pressure and through credible threats of force. That didn’t happen by magic. I think that the belief that we can take our hand off that wheel and see what happens if we experiment with the world, in which we throw out all this “Cold War blather” and just let people kind of do what they want with these technologies and weapons…that doesn’t seem like an experiment that’s likely to end well for humans. Except that’s the experiment that we may be embarking on now.
Revealing His Agenda
The notion that the JCPOA represents an “experiment” in which we “just let people kind of do what they want with these technologies and weapons” seems incongruous with the fact that scores of nuclear non-proliferation experts have explicitly endorsed the JCPOA for what it does to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. It’s not, in other words, an experiment. Of course, according to Samuels, a reporter with no particular arms control expertise, all these actual arms control experts are simply cogs in the Obama administration’s spin machine. The possibility that these experts could have supported the JCPOA on its merits is entirely absent from Samuels’s account—instead, they’ve all been bamboozled by Ben Rhodes and the White House communications team. In a post on Medium, Rhodes pushed back on this point, arguing that the merits of the deal, not White House spin, won it the support of those outside experts.
But what’s most telling about the Hudson panel presentation quote is that it could have come out of the mouth of any right-wing JCPOA opponent. Yet Samuels otherwise tries to portray himself as a humble reporter with no dog in the fight. David Samuels is certainly entitled to his opinion about the Iran deal, but it’s important for people reading his work to know what that opinion is, so that they can evaluate his reporting with complete clarity. Neither Samuels nor his editors at the Times felt the need to inform the readers of his Ben Rhodes profile of his views, even though they clearly color the final piece.
Why did The New York Times publish a profile of Barack Obama’s deputy national security advisor written by an avowed, very public critic of Obama’s most significant foreign policy achievement without checking it for bias? Although the paper’s official editorial position has largely favored the JCPOA, it has published a considerable amount of flawed reporting about the deal. In their work around the nuclear talks, Times reporters have selectively quoted sources, factually misrepresented the state of Iran’s nuclear program, and engaged in what seems to be outright spin in opposition to the very idea of a deal. Giving David Samuels space to tell his tale of Obama administration deviousness seems, in that context, to be par for the course.
Photo: Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes and President Barack Obama