How a New York Times Profile Reignited the Iran Deal Wars

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U.S. President Barack Obama confers with Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications, in the Oval Office, Sept. 10, 2014.Credit: Pete Souza \ The White House

The most buzzed-about and controversial article of the past weekend was indisputably the New York Times Magazine’s lengthy profile of deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes.

The piece, as indicated by the title “The Aspiring Novelist Who Became Obama’s Foreign Policy Guru” portrays Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, as a Holden Caulfield-like boy wonder, known as “the master shaper and retailer of Obama’s foreign-policy narratives.”

The longtime aide has been at the president’s side for so long, David Samuels wrote, that he is able to “mind meld” with his boss and skillfully shape the narrative of Obama’s foreign policy vision. He then sends it out into the world, spinning and manipulating journalists and advocacy groups using social media, as he battles nobly against the critical and interventionist Beltway foreign policy establishment he disdains and nicknamed “The Blob.”

The press came down hard on the profile, with a Washington Post piece calling it “just gross” and a Foreign Policy article calling Rhodes an “asshole,” with equally angry reactions across Twitter.

The focus of the controversy, particularly among Israelis and Middle East watchers, is the centerpiece of the article, in which Rhodes recounts masterminding the passage of the bitterly divisive Iran deal through Congress. Samuels asserted in the piece that “Rhodes’ 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” and then illustrated how the former fiction writer was “adept” at “constructing over arching plotlines with heroes and villains, their conflicts and motivations supported by flurries of carefully chosen adjectives, quotations and leaks.”

According to Rhodes, the Obama White House saw the Iran deal as a key example of a way of breaking out of “cycles of conflict.” While he wasn’t explicitly quoted as saying that Israel was among those who wanted to drag the U.S. into eternal conflicts, he certainly hinted at it.

In a quote at the beginning of the piece as to why Iran policy was so central to the Obama foreign policy legacy, he said that it had demonstrated that “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 States don’t like it.’ It’s the possibility of improved relations with adversaries. It’s nonproliferation.”

Rhodes’ version of events, as reported by Samuels, did not contain many new revelations — still, the bluntness of Rhodes’ quotes and the tone of the piece managed to anger veterans on all sides of the Iran debate wars.

Opponents of the Iran deal in both Israel and the United States were furious and their criticism had an undertone of vindication. They saw Rhodes’ description as proving their view that the Obama White House had played dirty, twisting reality to push through a bad deal. The article’s references to Rhodes being a formerly aspiring fiction writer who used “writerly tools” to “shape narratives” was translated into an admission that Rhodes lied and spun in order to present Obama’s naive and inaccurate view of the world in general and the Middle East in particular. In a column published in the pro-Netanyahu Adelson-owned Israel HaYom, headlined “Top White House aide boasts of Iran deal deception,” Boaz Bismuth wrote that the Times piece exposed a “giant scam, revealed by the person tasked with executing deceitful manipulations” which was “nothing short of scandalous” and “illustrates yet again the extent to which the president is living in a virtual reality.”

Iran deal advocates were even more unhappy at their portrayal as dupes in the hands of Rhodes and his team. Heather Hurlburt, a former Clinton administration official who works for the New America Foundation, said in an online discussion of the piece that “the idea that the White House invented this little army of fake advocates is wrong and insulting.” Hurlburt and others accused Samuels of concealing the fact that he had opposed the Iran deal and characterized the article, despite its flattering descriptions of Rhodes’ abilities, as a hit piece.

Journalists who covered the Iran deal in a supportive light were equally displeased at being described as ignorant and easily spun “compadres” and “force multipliers.” Rhodes said that the press in general was easier to manipulate in the past because reporters just didn’t know much. He said in the piece that: “Newspapers used to have foreign bureaus. Now they don’t. They call us to explain to them what’s happening in Moscow and Cairo. 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 even two writers with knowledge and experience — The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg and al Monitor’s Laura Rozen — were characterized by Samuels as being “handpicked Beltway insiders” that the White House team used to convince those “in need of more traditional-seeming forms of validation” to support the Iran deal.

On Twitter, colleagues rallied to Rozen and Goldberg’s defense, refuting examples in the articles claiming they had fallen for White House spin, where in fact they hadn’t. Specifically challenged was the assertion that Rhodes had successfully sold a “manufactured, misleading and false” story to the American public that Obama’s “serious engagement” with Iran began only in 2013 “to take advantage of a new political reality in Iran, which came about because of elections that brought moderates to power in that country.” Journalists who covered the deal pointed to articles in which they had reported that contacts between the administration and Iran began much earlier, in the era of the hardliners.

The foreign policy establishment understandably doesn’t appreciate being called “The Blob” and learning of Rhodes’ “healthy contempt for the American foreign-policy establishment, including editors and reporters at The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Yorker and elsewhere, who at first applauded the Iraq war and then sought to pin all the blame on Bush and his merry band of neocons when it quickly turned sour.” Rhodes’ “Blob” includes presumptive 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton — which actually may help Clinton’s efforts to distance herself from Obama’s foreign policy with an eye to appealing to foreign policy hawks put off by Donald Trump.

In an effort at damage control, Rhodes published a response to his critics early Monday morning saying that the aggressive press operation had been necessary to counter a strong and well-funded campaign against the deal and that “it wasn’t ‘spin,’ it’s what we believed and continue to believe, and the hallmark of the entire campaign was to push out facts.” He also walked back his remarks about the press, saying that there was “no shortage of good reporting and analysis — positive, negative, and mixed—about the Iran deal.”

Most importantly, Rhodes wrote, “today, Iran verifiably cannot obtain a nuclear weapon. That, more than anything I or anyone else can say, makes the case for the Iran deal.”

It is telling that the Times piece and Rhodes’ response focus so heavily on the Iran deal and so little on the bloody conflict in Syria, the dead-end status Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, the European immigration crisis and other crises where a narrative of White House success can’t be so easily crafted — a sign that even “boy wonder” spin doctors have their limits.

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