Last week’s startling confession by White House operative Ben Rhodes—that the Obama administration lied to the American people about its dealings with Iran to secure a nuclear agreement—not only confirms the perception of a mendacious and arrogant presidency. It exposes a feverish and even delusional frame of mind: an uncompromising revulsion for war that has undermined American security and invited a cascade of extremism, violence, and human suffering.
In an interview with David Samuels published in the New York Times Magazine, Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, candidly explained how the White House spun the Iran negotiations. The official story, shaped by Rhodes, was that the Iran deal began in 2013, after the election of the “moderate” Hassan Rouhani supposedly marginalized “hardliners” opposed to negotiations. Under this happy scenario, the “moderates” sought a policy of “openness,” including a willingness to dismantle Iran’s illicit nuclear-weapons program. The only alternative to the agreement, according to this version, was war with Iran.
All of this was a fiction. Talks with Iran, in fact, had begun in 2012—with “hardliners” unlikely to negotiate in good faith. Obama’s closest advisors acknowledge he wanted talks with the Iranians from the start of his presidency. Most Iran experts see little difference between the militant mullahs and Rouhani, whose candidacy was handpicked by Iran’s supreme leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. (Yes, that’s the “death to America” Khamenei.) Moreover, many believe that continuing the economic sanctions against Iran—instead of abandoning them at the outset—would have yielded a much stronger disarmament agreement with Tehran.
It is especially damning that Samuels, himself a liberal journalist and an Obama supporter, leaves no doubt about the administration’s strategy of deception: “The way in which most Americans have heard the story of the Iran deal presented…was largely manufactured for the purpose of selling the deal.”
Rhodes brags to Samuels about his role in misleading clueless journalists whose “only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns.” Today’s large cohort of young reporters, he implies, are especially vulnerable to manipulation because “they literally know nothing.” With a kind of Trumpian self-regard, Rhodes details the Obama playbook:
We created an echo chamber. They were saying things that validated what we had given them to say…In the absence of rational discourse, we are going to discourse the [expletive] out of this. 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.
Rhodes’ associate in the propaganda war is Tanya Somanader, a director at the White House Office of Digital Strategy, who even named some of the journalists in their echo chamber: Laura Rozen of Al-Monitor and Jeffrey Goldberg at The Atlantic. (My critique of Goldberg’s 19,000-word recent defense of the Obama doctrine can be found here.) The Soviet Union used to refer to Western journalists duped into applauding communism as “useful idiots.” What should we call journalists who cheerfully enlist in the Obama administration’s dangerous campaign of disinformation?
Behind all the messaging and manipulation lurks an emotion: an animus against U.S. military action, born out of a hatred for the war in Iraq. Rhodes shares this emotion with President Obama—“I don’t know anymore where I begin and Obama ends,” he confessed—and together they have brought about a radical reorientation of U.S. foreign policy. Indeed, according to the New York Times profile, Ben Rhodes is “the single most influential voice shaping American foreign policy aside from Potus himself.”
No matter what the issue—whether it is the Iranian nuclear threat, the Syrian civil war, the rise of the Islamic State—Rhodes retreats to his emotional lodestar, the Iraq war. As Samuels bluntly summarizes it: “Iraq is his one-word-answer to any and all criticism.” It is reminiscent of the post-Vietnam War syndrome that paralyzed the administrations of Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton.
Like other liberals disillusioned by America’s foreign policy misdeeds, Rhodes exudes the moral smugness of an Egyptian pharaoh. Dissenters are viewed as enemies, reactionaries, war-mongering troglodytes. Samuels writes revealingly of “the brutal contempt that is a hallmark of his private utterances” and the “aggressive contempt for anyone or anything that stands in the president’s way.”
Given the many mistakes and the painful sacrifices made during the Iraq war, the desire to keep America out of another conflict in the Middle East should not be met with similar contempt. But a revulsion for war cannot be the sum total of U.S. foreign policy.
What neither Rhodes nor Obama are willing to admit—after nearly eight years in the White House—is that the projection of American weakness and retreat invites instability and tragedy. Their facile assumptions about securing peace are akin to those of the peace-loving statesmen of the 1930s, whose horror at the prospect of war allowed international fascism to overwhelm Europe. “They have created an attitude of irresponsibility toward the tragic history of Europe,” wrote Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, “and a spirit of cynicism in estimating the consequences of the war.”
The United States has effectively stayed out of the Syrian conflict, for example, and to hear Rhodes tell it, we should congratulate the White House for its prudence and geo-political humility. No American soldiers, after all, have died in this war. But Rhodes has less to say about the 470,000 Syrians who have perished violently because of Bashar al-Assad’s determination to remain in power, or the fact that half of the population of Syria has become refugees. “Nothing we could have done,” he reportedly told a group of Syrian activists, “would have made things better.”
Nothing—absolutely nothing—could have made a difference in Syria? This is the lesson of Iraq? What about another lesson from Iraq, when Saddam Hussein threatened to exterminate the Kurds after the first Gulf War? The United States, along with Great Britain, created a no-fly zone to protect the Kurdish people from mass slaughter. We shot down Iraqi planes, risked war, and helped the Kurds to build a decent, independent, self-governing state. Today the Iraqi Kurds are intensely pro-American, pro-Western, and among our best allies in the fight against radical Islam.
Nothing we could have done would have made things better. This fatalism—a kind of internal mantra at the White House—reveals the character of Obama’s foreign policy team: their moral shallowness and blithe disregard for America’s strategic role on the world stage.
And their inexperience. Next to the president himself, no single person ever acquired the kind of political power that Rhodes has acquired with so little understanding of foreign affairs. On September 11, 2001, Rhodes was in an MFA program at New York University, planning to become a famous fiction writer. He was a mediocre student, having spent most of his high school years “drinking, and smoking pot and hanging out in Central Park.” Rhodes had no interest in diplomacy or American history. His only published work was a short story, “The Goldfish Smiles, You Smile Back.” It was good enough to gain him entry into the Washington political establishment as a speechwriter.
As for becoming a famous fiction writer, it seems that Ben Rhodes has achieved this goal beyond his wildest dreams. Yet there is a price for his success—a human cost being measured not only by what America does, but by what it fails to do. Smile on, Goldfish, smile on.
Joseph Loconte is an associate professor of history at the King’s College in New York City and a senior editor at Providence. His most recent book is A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War: How. J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-1918.
Photo Credit: President Barack Obama talks with President Hassan Rouhani of Iran during a phone call in the Oval Office, Sept. 27, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)