The neocon branch of the foreign policy press is absolutely furious with this NY Times interview by David Samuels with White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes.
As the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, Rhodes writes the president’s speeches, plans his trips abroad and runs communications strategy across the White House, tasks that, taken individually, give little sense of the importance of his role. He is, according to the consensus of the two dozen current and former White House insiders I talked to, the single most influential voice shaping American foreign policy aside from Potus himself. The president and Rhodes communicate “regularly, several times a day,” according to Denis McDonough, Obama’s chief of staff, who is known for captaining a tight ship. “I see it throughout the day in person,” he says, adding that he is sure that in addition to the two to three hours that Rhodes might spend with Obama daily, the two men communicate remotely throughout the day via email and phone calls. Rhodes strategized and ran the successful Iran-deal messaging campaign, helped negotiate the opening of American relations with Cuba after a hiatus of more than 50 years and has been a co-writer of all of Obama’s major foreign-policy speeches. “Every day he does 12 jobs, and he does them better than the other people who have those jobs,” Terry Szuplat, the longest-tenured member of the National Security Council speechwriting corps, told me. On the largest and smallest questions alike, the voice in which America speaks to the world is that of Ben Rhodes.
Like Obama, Rhodes is a storyteller who uses a writer’s tools to advance an agenda that is packaged as politics but is often quite personal. He is adept at constructing overarching plotlines with heroes and villains, their conflicts and motivations supported by flurries of carefully chosen adjectives, quotations and leaks from named and unnamed senior officials. He 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. His ability to navigate and shape this new environment makes him a more effective and powerful extension of the president’s will than any number of policy advisers or diplomats or spies. His lack of conventional real-world experience of the kind that normally precedes responsibility for the fate of nations — like military or diplomatic service, or even a master’s degree in international relations, rather than creative writing — is still startling.
And if you're wondering why veteran foreign policy Villagers are calling for Rhodes's head on a pike, well the reaction of Tom Ricks is typical. They hate the guy, because Rhodes called them out.
Rhodes comes off like a real asshole. This is not a matter of politics — I have voted for Obama twice. Nor do I mind Rhodes’s contempt for many political reporters: “Most of the outlets are reporting on world events from Washington. The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.”
But, as that quote indicates, he comes off like an overweening little schmuck. This quotation seems to capture his worldview: “He referred to the American foreign policy establishment as the Blob. According to Rhodes, the Blob includes Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates, and other Iraq-war promoters from both parties who now whine incessantly about the collapse of the American security order in Europe and the Middle East.” Blowing off Robert Gates takes nerve.
I expect cynicism in Washington. But it usually is combined with a lot of knowledge — as with, say, Henry Kissinger. To be cynical and ignorant and to spin those two things into a virtue? That’s industrial-strength hubris. Kind of like what got us into Iraq, in fact.
Rhodes and others around Obama keep on talking about doing all this novel thinking, playing from a new playbook, bucking the establishment thinking. But if that is the case, why have they given so much foreign policy power to two career hacks who never have had an original thought? I mean, of course, Joe Biden and John Kerry. I guess the answer can only be that those two are puppets, and (as in Biden’s case) are given losing propositions like Iraq to handle.
Yeah, that's right, one of the more important Pentagon/State beat writers around just called the Vice President and the Secretary of State "hacks" and "puppets" of a 38-year old creative writing graduate.
Rhodes's contempt for the press has apparently resulted in that same press taking no small measure of revenge. Samuels again, this time on on apparently the Mean Ol' Obama Administration sold the Iran nuclear deal as soullessly as Karl Rove did the Iraq War
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. 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. “It’s the center of the arc,” Rhodes explained to me two days after the deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, was implemented. He then checked off the ways in which the administration’s foreign-policy aims and priorities converged on Iran. “We don’t have to kind of be in cycles of conflict if we can find other ways to resolve these issues,” he said. “We can do things that challenge the conventional thinking that, you know, ‘AIPAC doesn’t like this,’ or ‘the Israeli government doesn’t like this,’ or ‘the gulf countries don’t like it.’ It’s the possibility of improved relations with adversaries. It’s nonproliferation. So all these threads that the president’s been spinning — and I mean that not in the press sense — for almost a decade, they kind of all converged around Iran.”
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 J.C.P.O.A. — 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. By eliminating the fuss about Iran’s nuclear program, the administration hoped to eliminate a source of structural tension between the two countries, which would create the space for America to disentangle itself from its established system of alliances with countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel and Turkey. With one bold move, the administration would effectively begin the process of a large-scale disengagement from the Middle East.
The nerve center for the selling of the Iran deal to Congress, which took place in a concentrated three-month period between July and September of last year, was located inside the White House, and is referred to by its former denizens as “the war room.” Chad Kreikemeier, a Nebraskan who had worked in the White House Office of Legislative Affairs, helped run the team, which included three to six people from each of several agencies, he says, which were the State Department, Treasury, the American delegation to the United Nations (i.e., Samantha Power), “at times D.O.D.” (the Department of Defense) and also the Department of Energy and the National Security Council. Rhodes “was kind of like the quarterback,” running the daily video conferences and coming up with lines of attack and parry. “He was extremely good about immediately getting to a phrase or a way of getting the message out that just made more sense,” Kreikemeier remembers. Framing the deal as a choice between peace and war was Rhodes’s go-to move — and proved to be a winning argument.
The person whom Kreikemeier credits with running the digital side of the campaign was Tanya Somanader, 31, the director of digital response for the White House Office of Digital Strategy, who became known in the war room and on Twitter as @TheIranDeal. Early on, Rhodes asked her to create a rapid-response account that fact-checked everything related to the Iran deal. “So, we developed a plan that was like: The Iran deal is literally going to be the tip of everything that we stand up online,” Somanader says. “And we’re going to map it onto what we know about the different audiences we’re dealing with: the public, pundits, experts, the right wing, Congress.” By applying 21st-century data and networking tools to the white-glove world of foreign affairs, the White House was able to track what United States senators and the people who worked for them, and influenced them, were seeing online — and make sure that no potential negative comment passed without a tweet.
Foreign policy journalism, even more so than White House press corps journalism, has always been about the relationship between the reporter and the source. Increasingly, the sources have all gone through Ben Rhodes, and the journalists really do despise the guy.
But make no mistake: the real target of the press contempt remains President Obama.
“He is a brilliant guy, but he has a real problem with what I call the assignment of bad faith,” one former senior official told me of the president. “He regards everyone on the other side at this point as being a bunch of bloodthirsty know-nothings from a different era who play by the old book. He hears arguments like, ‘We should be punching Iran in the nose on its shipments of arms, and do it publicly,’ or ‘We should sanction the crap out of them for their ballistic-missile test and tell them that if they do it again we’re going to do this or we’re going to do that,’ and he hears Dick Cheney in those arguments.”
Another official I spoke to put the same point more succinctly: “Clearly the world has disappointed him.” When I asked whether he believed that the Oval Office debate over Syria policy in 2012 — resulting in a decision not to support the uprising against Assad in any meaningful way — had been an honest and open one, he said that he had believed that it was, but has since changed his mind. “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,” he says. “In an odd way, he reminds me of Bush.” The comparison is a startling one — and yet, questions of tone aside, it is uncomfortably easy to see the similarities between the two men, American presidents who projected their own ideas of the good onto an indifferent world.
You tell me this isn't direct revenge for President Obama calling out the press time and again.
Having said all that, in all seriousness, President Obama can be pretty blind sometimes when it comes to trusting the people he has a good relationship with. Arne Duncan, Tim Geithner, Chuck Hagel and Bob Gates? In hindsight, these were atrocious cabinet picks that did a ton of damage to President Obama's legacy, and he listened to them for years.
Ben Rhodes is looking like another one of those folks.