Selling the Iran Deal
David Samuels' profile of Ben Rhodes, "The Aspiring Novelist Who Became Obama's Foreign-Policy Guru," in the most recent New York Times Magazine, is a fine piece of journalism, and has attracted a great deal of attention. But if one were to ask, "What did we learn from it that we did not already know?" the answer would be not much.
The big headlines, of course, were generated by Rhodes evident glee in relating how the Obama administration sold the Iranian nuclear deal on a completely false narrative. That's what novelists, aspiring or otherwise, do: They construct narratives. And Rhodes is a talented novelist, if he does say so himself.
"How the Iran deal was sold through lies," is the title of Lee Smith's excellent summary of Samuels' piece. What were those lies? In Rhodes telling, the key to the narrative was that the United States had reached out to Iran in response to the election of the "moderate" Hassan Rouhani in the 2013 presidential elections. In fact, we now learn, the overall parameters of the deal were hammered out by Hillary Clinton's top deputy Jake Sullivan and Deputy Secretary of State William Burns in meetings with senior Iranian officials in Oman during the presidency of the "mad" Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The second crucial element of the narrative was that the only alternative to the deal was war with Iran, the implication being a repeat of the perceived fiasco in Iraq.
But who believed these claims in the first place? All candidates in Iran's elections are thoroughly vetted by Supreme Leader Khameini and his closest advisors, and Khameini was always calling the shots in negotiations. Anyone with a bit of knowledge about Iran knew that the president of Iran was irrelevant; only the supreme leader counted on nuclear matters. As then Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told Samuels, when asked about the so-called "moderate" and "hard-line" camps, "There was not much question that the Quds Force and the supreme leader ran the country with a strong arm, and there was not much question that this kind of opposing view would somehow gain any traction."
Nor should the war or else line have convinced anyone with half a brain cell in their heads. True, Iran was never likely to give up on its nuclear program absent a credible threat of military action. But such action need not have entailed the involvement of large numbers of ground troops for a long time. The United States still enjoyed overwhelming military superiority and had the capacity to fly repeated sorties sufficient to destroy most of Iran's nuclear program.
The claim that Iran had already amassed the nuclear know-how needed and would simply rebuild its program makes no sense on its face. If the United States once showed the willingness to destroy the program, what would prevent it from doing so again and again?
THE CONCEIT of Samuels' lengthy profile is that the White House was successful in selling its false narrative, and brilliantly enlisted all sorts of "experts" and useful idiots in the press to do so. Of the existence of the useful idiots there can be little doubt, and one cannot help but laugh thinking about how the faithful media troops must be squirming as Rhodes pours out his sneering contempt on them.
"They literally know nothing," Rhodes characterizes the press corps. Once major newspapers maintained foreign bureaus, he explains. No longer. Now they "call us [i.e., the White House] to explain to them what's happening in Moscow and Cairo. The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting consists of being around political campaigns."
While Rhodes may have successfully created an "echo chamber" in the press, as he boasts, it is far less clear that he succeeded in selling the deal. Recall that not a single Republican senator supported the deal. It never came up for any kind of vote in the Senate due to the Democrats' threat to filibuster.
Only five Democrats in the Senate opposed the deal. The reasons the rest supported it had less to do with the president's and Rhodes' persuasive powers than with the senators' unwillingness to cross the president on his signature issue with a presidential election a year away. Many may have feared that a failure to back the president would result in a primary opponent to their left the next time they came up for re-election, for if there is one group that clearly buys the "no alternative to war" line it is the Democratic base. That base, however, needed little persuading. All military action above the level of a drone strike has long been anathema to the Democratic base.
As for the American people, opinion polls consistently showed that a majority opposed the deal, and when asked to choose between military action and a nuclear Iran, chose the former.
OF ALL THE LIES TOLD by the president and his confreres, by far the most important – and the one that may truly have made a difference – was that if Iran appeared to be nearing the acquisition of a nuclear weapon Obama would stop them by military force.
Leon Panetta tells Samuels that one of his most important tasks as secretary of defense was to prevent Israel from striking Iran pre-emptively. And he relates how Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak repeatedly pressed him as to whether Obama was serious about preventing Iran from obtaining an atomic weapon. Panetta assured him that he was.
Asked whether he would make the same assessment today, Panetta responds, "Probably not." (Dennis Ross, who initially held the Iran portfolio in the national security council, and The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg are two others who were fooled as to Obama's seriousness about stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.)
MUCH OF the Rhodes profile is of value not for new revelations so much as for confirming much of what had already been surmised or hypothesized about the president's thinking, which is fully mirrored by Rhodes' own. "I don't know any more where I begin and Obama ends," Rhodes tells Samuels.
Michael Doran's thesis, first advanced in Mosaic over a year ago, that outreach to Iran was at the heart of Obama's foreign policy vision from the start receives much support from Samuels' interviews.
From the beginning of his presidency, Obama was eager for an agreement with Iran over its nuclear program, and that eagerness allowed Iran to continually wring new concessions from him in the final stages of negotiations. As Doran surmised, Obama saw everything through the prism of an agreements. Panetta tells Samuels how Obama would respond, "If you ratchet up sanctions, it could cause war. If you start opposing their interest in Syria, well, that could start a war."
In a telling vignette at the beginning of the piece, Iran has seized two small boats and ten American sailors on the day that Obama is to give his final State of the Union, and just prior to the implementation stage of the Iran deal. Rhodes had hoped to keep the story from breaking before the president's address, but failed. He does, however, come up with the necessary spin: The matter will be solved because the U.S. and Iran have built a relationship in the course of the negotiations over Iran's nuclear program.
Everything is spin. Neither Rhodes nor Obama stop for a moment to reflect that perhaps Iran is making clear that it has no wish to be America's friend and will do everything possible to humiliate America. Nor have any number of virulent anti-American statements from Supreme Leader Khameini or senior members of the Revolutionary Guard made more of an impression.
The charge that Obama views American power as largely negative, and views America in a manner that would be largely unrecognizable to any of his predecessors in office is also buttressed by Samuels. Rhodes tells him that Obama's childhood in Indonesia left him with a "revulsion" with a certain type of "global power." Jon Favreau, Obama's chief speechwriter on the 2008 campaign, admits to Samuels that he, Rhodes and the president viewed their "entire job" over the past eight years as the "restructuring of the American narrative."
Numerous senior officials describe to Samuels the complete "mind meld" between Obama and Rhodes. The two men often spend up to three hours a day together, and communicate frequently throughout the day. Samuels describes Rhodes "aggressive contempt for anyone or anything in the president's way."
Contempt is a word that appears frequently in Samuels' portrait of Rhodes. "Brutal contempt," Samuels informs us, "is the hallmark of his private utterances." He has a "healthy contempt" for the entire foreign policy establishment, including largely supportive senior editors and reporters at The New York Times, Washington Post, and The New Yorker, and former senior officials, like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates – all of whom he lumps together as the Blob. And his work on the Iraq Study Group convinced him that all the "decision-makers were morons."
Rhodes high self-regard and contempt for the intelligence of others mirrors Obama's own. As a candidate in 2008, Obama candidly admitted that he knew more about foreign policy than his foreign policy advisors, was a better speechwriter than his speechwriters, and a better political strategist than his campaign directors.
Rhodes' eagerness to expose how he duped the American people and Congress, even before Obama has left office – "the jerk who is Obama's foreign policy guru" Foreign Policy called him -- parallels Obama's own recent expressions of disdain and blame for other foreign leaders with whom he must still deal, in his lengthy interview with Jeffrey Goldberg. Walter Russell Mead notes the oddity of a president in the midst of making the case that he is wiser and more far-seeing than others needlessly riling foreign leaders by blaming them for the disaster that is post-Gaddafi Libya.
The president's confidence in his unique insight was quickly picked up by close aides like Rhodes. Panetta complains that the White House staff did not allow different options to be presented to the president by the Defense or State Department so confident were they of knowing the president's thinking.
FINALLY, SAMUELS PIECE is a warning of the dangers of thinking oneself or one's boss to be smarter than all other people on the planet combined. Samuels gently pushes Rhodes as to whether the administration was too stuck in an Iraq paradigm to deal with the crisis in Syria that has killed almost half a million people and left four million refugees. Rhodes is saddened by the carnage but not chastened.
When Samuels wonders why America is attempting to strong-arm Syrian rebels into surrendering to a dictator who is murdering their families or allowing Iran to keep the supply lines open to Hezbollah is Lebanon, Rhodes mutters something about John Kerry and about the world of Sunni Arabs built by the American establishment having collapsed. As for his boss so for Rhodes, there is always someone else to blame.
Samuels quotes another former senior Obama foreign policy advisor about Obama's inability for all his brilliance (the official's characterization not mine) to rethink when things go poorly. He describes Obama as frequently disappointed by events, as if reality must conform to his expectations and not he to reality: "Instead of adjusting his policies to the reality, and adjusting his perception of reality to the changing realities on the ground, the conclusions he draws are exactly the same, no matter what the costs have been to our strategic interests."
When China becomes increasingly aggressive in the South China Sea or Russian invades Ukraine and annexes Crimea, America need do nothing, for it is they who have violated the "arc of history," i.e., reality as Obama has determined it should be.
When an advisor suggests sanctioning Iran for testing ballistic missiles in violation of Security Council resolutions and punishing its arms shipments, all the president can hear are the voices of "bloodthirsty know-nothings from a different era who play by the old book."
In an odd way, comments the official to Samuels, Obama's stubborn refusal to reconsider or treat with other approaches reminds him of George W. Bush in Iraq.
The comparison is unfair, however. Bush dramatically changed course in ordering the 2007 surge, and by 2009 Iraq was on the path to stability, until Obama decided to remove every last American troop.
But Bush never thought he was the smartest person in the world, who once having decided need never reconsider.