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Telling tales: When the ‘metafictional’ narrative of Ben Rhodes trumped truth

Ben Rhodes
Ben Rhodes

By Patrick B. McGuigan, editor

David Samuels, a reporter for The New York Times Magazine, has written a gripping news story/biographical narrative about Ben Rhodes, an important and powerful man who has for years labored behind the curtain of near-anonymity in the nation’s capital.

Mr. Rhodes is President Barack Obama’s deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, and he is now known to many Americans.

Samuels apparently respects his subject’s intellect, but reaches conclusions about the young (38-years-old) man that cast doubt on the wisdom of Obama’s pact allowing the Islamic Republic of Iran to retain its existing nuclear capabilities.

Here are the key sentences from Samuels’ remarkable story, printed May 4 in The New York Times Magazine:

“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.”

Rhodes – “an aspiring novelist” – is considered “The Boy Wonder of the Obama White House.” Samuels contends, “In the largest and smallest questions alike, the voice in which America speaks to the world is that of Ben Rhodes.”

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.”

Until recent days, the name of Ben Rhodes had rarely appeared in news stories, commentaries or analyses of Obama’s foreign policy, unless — as Samuels puts it – “you are looking for the quotation from an unnamed senior official in Paragraph 9.”

Former U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Indiana, for whom Rhodes worked previously, can be deemed his mentor. Hamilton told Samuels he was struck by Rhodes’ ability to attend a meeting and “decide what was decided.” Over these last few years, that became a source of remarkable power.

Rhodes entered Obama’s service with (in Samuels’ words) with “a 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.”

Rhodes calls that establishment “The Blob.” In his mind, it 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.”

One more time, read the sentences above, which distil Samuels’ insights about how the power of narrative can trump the nuances and pesky details that equal unvarnished reality.

Back to Samuels: “It is hard for many to absorb the true magnitude of the change in the news business — 40 percent of newspaper-industry professionals have lost their jobs over the past decade — in part because readers can absorb all the news they want from social-media platforms like Facebook, which are valued in the tens and hundreds of billions of dollars and pay nothing for the ‘content’ they provide to their readers. You have to have skin in the game — to be in the news business, or depend in a life-or-death way on its products — to understand the radical and qualitative ways in which words that appear in familiar typefaces have changed.”

Rhodes observes, as Samuels reports: “All these 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.”

Samuels writes: “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 [agreement] — 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.”

Samuels reports, “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.”

There are many characters in Samuels’ story, but Rhodes is the star. Rhodes told the reporter, “We created an echo chamber” in cyber-space. When what Samuels called “freshly minted experts cheerleading for the deal” emerged, Rhodes admits, “They were saying things that validated what we had given them to say.”

In a conversation with his subject, Samuels worried that “all this dark metafictional play seemed a bit removed from rational debate over America’s future role in the world.”

At that, Rhodes nodded, and said, “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.”

Samuels writes that he “asked whether the prospect of this same kind of far-reaching spin campaign being run by a different administration is something that scares him, he admitted that it does. ‘I mean, I’d prefer a sober, reasoned public debate, after which members of Congress reflect and take a vote,’ he said, shrugging. ‘But that’s impossible.’ ”

Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta was one of the few former Obama advisors willing to talk to Samuels on the record.

Panetta says one of his jobs was to keep Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak from destroying Iran’s nuclear facilities with the Jewish nation’s own forces.

Panetta said, “[M]y view, talking with the president, was: If brought to the point where we had evidence that they’re developing an atomic weapon, I think the president is serious that he is not going to allow that to happen.”

Samuels asked Panetta: “But would you make that same assessment now?”

Panetta’s response: “Would I make that same assessment now? Probably not.”

Samuels is candid at the end of his story.

Concerning “Boy Wonder” Rhodes – and of his personal musings — Samuels reflects:

“Iraq is his one-word answer to any and all criticism. I was against the Iraq war from the beginning, I tell Rhodes, so I understand why he perpetually returns to it. I also understand why Obama pulled the plug on America’s engagement with the Middle East, I say, but it was also true as a result that more people are dying there on his watch than died during the Bush presidency, even if very few of them are Americans.

“What I don’t understand is why, if America is getting out of the Middle East, we are apparently spending so much time and energy trying to strong-arm Syrian rebels into surrendering to the dictator who murdered their families, or why it is so important for Iran to maintain its supply lines to Hezbollah.”
To turn around key words in a popular old film, pay attention to that man behind the curtain.

Note: The New York Times Magazine story can be read here.

Leon Panetta
Leon Panetta