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The raging controversy over a profile of Ben Rhodes, explained

Pete Souza

About a week ago, David Samuels published a profile in the New York Times magazine of Ben Rhodes, a second-tier but highly influential member of President Obama's national security team, that's set Washington ablaze.

Conservative media has enthusiastically embraced a handful of sensational lines as proof of Obama's duplicity, while stories in the Atlantic, Mother Jones, Politico, New York magazine, and Slate have sliced and diced it as riddled with errors.

While formally structured as a profile of Rhodes, his unusual career path, and his thoughts on the intersection of postmodern literary theory and the politics of foreign policy, the article in fact advances a polemical argument — that the American public was duped into accepting a nuclear deal with Iran by Rhodes's manipulation of the press.

Samuels is a veteran proponent of bombing Iran and an opponent of the Obama administration's nuclear diplomacy, but his profile does not state either of those facts plainly. Instead it simply offers an "admiring" portrayal of Rhodes's skill at shaping the narrative that's so clumsy that a range of readers, including Carlos Lozada and Joshua Foust, mistook it for a puff piece that accidentally makes its subject look bad.

The key thesis of the story is wrong, but separate from that core contention, Rhodes gives Samuels plenty of rope to hang himself with — quotes that alienate would-be allies while offering plenty of fodder for critics of the Obama administration's approach to foreign policy.

But read correctly it offers an intriguing window into the mentality of a group that is very influential right now but whose power is going to vanish in the near future — the coterie of dovish national security hands who embraced Obama early in his campaign against Hillary Clinton and who continue to chafe against the influence of the foreign policy establishment even from inside the White House.

Who is Ben Rhodes?

Rhodes's job title is deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, which means informally that he oversees communications related to American foreign policy. As Samuels's profile details, Rhodes slid into that role after working on Obama's presidential campaign as his main speechwriter on foreign policy issues. That, in turn, was an unusually important role because Obama put foreign policy at the center of his primary campaign and John McCain put foreign policy at the center of his general election campaign against Obama.

But more than any specific job, Rhodes stands out for his relationship to the president.

This is often discussed in terms of a "mind meld" between Obama and Rhodes, but it's actually easier to understand in institutional terms. Obama's national security team has always exhibited a split personality between a group of outsider insurgents — Rhodes, UN Ambassador Samantha Power, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, Chief of Staff Denis McDonough — who backed him in 2007 and a group of figures with longstanding institutional ties to the national security establishment that long predate Obama's term in office.

That old-line Obamaite wing's influence has grown over the years as its members have gained experience and shifted into more prominent roles. Its influence is also most sharply felt precisely during the most politically contentious moments of Obama's foreign policy, and Rhodes's communications role is particularly significant precisely at politically contentious moments. When Obama is hewing closest to his original campaign-era presentation as a dovish outsider, Rhodes's role steps to the forefront. A profile of him focused on his work on the Iran nuclear deal therefore makes sense.

What does the profile say?

The profile says, essentially, that Rhodes hornswoggled the public into believing the Iran nuclear deal was a good idea by manipulating the press. Here's one key section:

As Malley and representatives of the State Department, including Wendy Sherman and Secretary of State John Kerry, engaged in formal negotiations with the Iranians, to ratify details of a framework that had already been agreed upon, Rhodes’s war room did its work on Capitol Hill and with reporters. 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. "We created an echo chamber," he admitted, when I asked him to explain the onslaught of freshly minted experts cheerleading for the deal. "They were saying things that validated what we had given them to say."

When I suggested that all this dark metafictional play seemed a bit removed from rational debate over America’s future role in the world, Rhodes nodded. "In the absence of rational discourse, we are going to discourse the [expletive] out of this," he said. "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." He is proud of the way he sold the Iran deal. "We drove them crazy," he said of the deal’s opponents.

And here's another about Tanya Somanader, a digital communications strategist at the White House who worked with Rhodes:

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.

As she explained how the process worked, I was struck by how naïve the assumption of a "state of nature" must seem in an information environment that is mediated less and less by experienced editors and reporters with any real prior knowledge of the subjects they write about. "People construct their own sense of source and credibility now," she said. "They elect who they’re going to believe." For those in need of more traditional-seeming forms of validation, handpicked Beltway insiders like Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic and Laura Rozen of Al-Monitor helped retail the administration’s narrative. "Laura Rozen was my RSS feed," Somanader offered. "She would just find everything and retweet it."

The core, concrete example of alleged deception is around the timing and motives of the administration's opening to Iran:

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.

What does Samuels get wrong?

Virtually everything. For starters, neither Obama's foreign policy in general nor the Iran deal in particular is especially popular. So if you, like Samuels, believe Obama's approach to these issues has been bad, there is genuinely nothing to explain about his communications strategy.

Secondarily, the core allegation that the American people have been mislead about the timing of Obama's interest in diplomacy with Iran is ridiculous. Obama's desire to do a deal with Iran was a prominent subject of the 2008 political campaign, and the not-very-obscure figure of Hillary Clinton has bragged about her role in laying the groundwork for a deal back in Obama's first term.

Samuels doesn't even understand what Somanader told him about Laura Rozen's Twitter feed, portraying her as saying that Rozen would reliably retweet whatever the White House wanted when in fact she's saying she relied upon Rozen's comprehensive retweeting of deal-related scuttlebutt to stay on top of the news.

The portrayal of Goldberg as a White House cat's paw appears to be grounded in some kind of beef between Goldberg and Samuels's wife.

Last but by no means least, Samuels's disparaging reference to "freshly minted experts cheerleading for the deal" is strategically designed to create the impression that there are some major technical flaws with the deal that real, veteran experts would know about. In fact, the exact opposite is the case. Arms control experts were so unanimous in support of a deal that the president of a group formed to oppose diplomacy with Iran ended up resigning to support the deal.

There's a cogent case against the deal grounded in regional politics (more on this later), but Rhodes was able to create the impression of a firm consensus in the arms control community because there really was a consensus.

Yet despite its significant flaws, the story is a pretty effective hit on the Obama administration for two big reasons.

  1. Rhodes is quoted, on the record, as castigating the entire media ("27 year olds … who literally know nothing") and the entire world of foreign policy analysis ("the Blob") in extremely broad-brush terms that alienate all possible allies.
  2. Since the substance of the article is to cast aspersions on White House efforts to mount coordinated media responses to critics, the White House seems to have been shy about mounting a coordinating response to Samuels's criticisms.

Consequently, while opponents of Obama's foreign policy have cited the article as bolstering their arguments, even critics of Samuels's story have tended to defend the honor of Goldberg or Rozen or the think tank world rather than Rhodes himself.

Even White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest found himself walking back Rhodes's remarks, saying in the briefing room that he's sure Rhodes "would say it differently if he had the chance."

Why is the Obama administration struggling to tell its foreign policy story?

In part, Samuels's story about the technical proficiency of Obama's national security spin shop is self-refuting. A team as cunning as the one Samuels portrays would not have granted so much access to an ideologically hostile journalist only to have the access mined for damaging quotes that would poison the White House's relationship with potential allies.

But a broader issue is that the people in charge of crafting the story — including Rhodes but running up to Obama himself — seem to have somewhat ambivalent feelings about it.

The Obamaite view (explored at greater length in this Michael Grunwald story) is that the American government faces relentless pressure from an alarmist media to over-intervene in Middle Eastern affairs. They further believe that this mentality is encouraged by American "allies" in the region who essentially want the US to fight their wars for them, and they agree with Max Fisher that these allies have essentially captured the Washington foreign policy establishment.

But while this view has certainly influenced foreign policy in the Obama era, it hasn't by any means dominated it. The same Barack Obama who dissed Saudi Arabia on the record in interviews with Goldberg also flew to the Gulf in April to kiss and make nice with the king, and hailed the "vision" of his late predecessor.

From day one, Obama has staffed his team not just with hardcore Obamaites but with plenty of veterans of the foreign policy Blob. He's been more restrained in the use of American force in the Middle East than the Blob collectively wants, but he's still used plenty of force. Obama told me in an interview that America's fiscal commitment to the military is excessive and that terrorism deserves to be demoted on the priority list, but his own budget proposals don't really reflect those ideas.

That Obama's more radical impulses — or those of his more left-wing staffers — have been tempered by things like politics, caution, the limited agenda space, coalition management, and path dependency isn't unusual. But on most fronts, Obama and his team can count on significant continuity at both the policy and personnel level if he is succeeded in the White House by Hillary Clinton.

On national security, that's much less true. A Clinton administration wouldn't be a decisive break with Obama's foreign policy, but it would mean a recalibration in favor of the more hawkish, establishment-oriented elements of the team consigning key ideas from the original campaign to the ash heap of history.

This closing door seems to be leading to more outspokenness about ideas that have only been half-embraced by actual policy and haven't necessarily been field-tested for political viability. The result has been some refreshing moments of candor and insight into the thinking of some key decision-makers, but also an unusually muddled and undisciplined message from a White House whose communications normally meet a very high standard.

Watch: How the Iran nuclear deal works