When it comes to foreign policy, President Obama has spent more than seven years now living the dream. And I mean dream, as in fantasy — a trip to an alternate universe. Never mind the dangerous and in some cases deadly realities that increasingly beset the rest of the planet. For the White House, it’s been one glorious fiction after another. Russia was a “reset.” Libya was a success. So was the pivot to Asia. The tide of war is receding. There was a red line in Syria (until there wasn’t). The Iran nuclear program is now “exclusively peaceful.” America’s standing in the world is now — according to a White House tally of nameless surveys — higher than when Obama took office.
Remarkable. But don’t credit Obama alone for the creative talent behind these fictions. In a story just posted by The New York Times Magazine, veteran reporter David Samuels brings us a long, appalling and masterfully reported look behind the scenes at influential White House senior staffer Ben Rhodes, “The Aspiring Novelist Who Became Obama’s Foreign Policy Guru.” Rhodes, 38, serves as assistant to the president, deputy national security advisor for strategic communications and speechwriting, and oversees, as the White House web site tells us, “President Obama’s national security communications, speechwriting and global engagement.”
How did Ben Rhodes get there? From New York prep-school, Rhodes went on to study creative writing at New York University. He published one short story, before enlisting his mother’s connections to enter the world of foreign policy. He then rose to become, as Samuels describes it, “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.” Samuels notes, “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.”
In an era when the-most-transparent-administration-ever is prone to such locutions as “Off the record, we have no comment,” Samuels has done a superb job of pulling back the curtain on Rhodes, “Boy Wonder of the Obama White House.” Samuels describes Rhodes as relatively low profile (he tends to turn up in big stories as “an unnamed senior official in paragraph 9”), “But once you are attuned to the distinctive qualities of Rhodes’s voice — which is often laced with aggressive contempt for anyone or anything that stands in the president’s way — you can hear him everywhere.”
Writes Samuels, “Part of what accounts for Rhodes’s influence is his ‘mind meld’ with the president. Nearly everyone I spoke to about Rhodes used the phrase ‘mind meld’ verbatim, some with casual assurance and others in the hushed tones that are usually reserved for special insights.” Samuels quotes Rhodes himself saying, “I don’t know anymore where I begin and Obama ends.”
There are various examples in this article of how Rhodes and his White House shop contrive to shape and spin policy and news, availing themselves of “the soft Orwellian vibe” of today’s highly malleable social media. Samuels describes this process as different from the days when “experienced reporters competed for scoops and where carrying water for the White House was a cause for shame, no matter which party was in power.” These days, he writes, “the most effectively weaponized 140-character idea or quote will almost always carry the day, and it is very difficult for even good reporters to necessarily know where the spin is coming from or why.”
The example Samuels describes in greatest detail is “Rhodes’s innovative campaign to sell the Iran deal,” a section of the article that The Weekly Standard’s Lee Smith explores neatly in an incisive article headlined “Obama Foreign Policy Guru Boasts of How the Administration Lied to Sell the Iran Deal.”
Those readers who found Jeffrey Goldberg’s picture of Obama in his March Atlantic profile refreshing for the president’s willingness to insult American allies publicly will be similarly cheered here by Rhodes’s boast of deceiving American citizens, lawmakers and allies over the Iran deal. Conversely, those who believe Obama risked American interests to take a cheap shot at allies from the pedestal of the Oval Office will be appalled to see Rhodes dancing in the end zone to celebrate the well-packaged misdirections and even lies — what Rhodes and others call a “narrative”– that won Obama his signature foreign policy initiative.
As Samuels describes it in his New York Times piece, those misdirections included Rhodes shaping the “narrative” to say the Iran deal began with the election of the “moderate” President Hassan Rouhani in 2013, which was “actively misleading” because the “most meaningful part of the negotiations” had begun, secretly, in 2012, under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, “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.” Obama and Rhodes, mind-melded, peddled the fiction.
It was all part of a campaign that further entailed, in Rhodes’s own words, creating “an echo chamber” for the media. Samuels reports that “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.” Rhodes tells Samuels: “They were saying things that validated what we had given them to say.” Samuels describes Rhodes as “proud of the way he sold the Iran deal. ‘We drove them crazy,’ he said of the deal’s opponents.”
Samuels describes how Rhodes preys upon the changing nature of the news business:
Rhodes singled out a key example to me one day, laced with the brutal contempt that is a hallmark of his private utterances. “All these newspapers used to have foreign bureaus,” he said. “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.”
There’s plenty more to this article, which is both fascinating and — fair warning — sickening in the scenes it describes at the White House. Apparently, Rhodes spends two or three hours daily with Obama, stays in touch the rest of the day by email and phone, and has co-written “all of Obama’s major foreign-policy speeches.” The pervasive element of the narratives thus concocted is one of contempt. Contempt for the public, contempt for the media, disdain for realities, scorn for the truth. What matters is the “shaped” and digitally amplified “narrative.”
Were Samuels’s article itself a piece of fiction, it might be an entertaining if tawdry tale about gloating charlatans of the digital age. But this story rings true. It is a piece of genuine reporting on how foreign policy is being shaped, packaged and sold, at the highest levels of the White House.
The Iran case is just one of many foreign policy moves by the Obama administration that have been morally empty and strategically delusional. But it is perhaps the most glaring. Lee Smith, in the closing lines of his Weekly Standard article, sums it up so neatly that he deserves the final word:
So that’s it. For the last seven years the American public has been living through a postmodern narrative crafted by an extremely gifted and unspeakably cynical political operative whose job is to wage digital information campaigns designed to dismantle a several-decade old security architecture while lying about the nature of the Iranian regime. No wonder Americans feel less safe — they are.