There are few things in the world less popular in the United States than the Islamic Republic of Iran. As the then-new, optimistic promise of the Obama presidency beckoned in 2008, Gallup found that overall opinion of Iran in this country was 8 percent favorable and a dramatic 88 percent unfavorable. These numbers have been remarkably consistent over time; there’s no better evidence that, in the eyes of the American people, Iran is our enemy.
By 2009, the American people were well aware of the anti-American and anti-Semitic ranting of Iran’s then-president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and were worried about the Islamic Republic’s development of nuclear weapons and clear threats to use them. Even without Iran’s direction and sponsorship of militias killing of thousands of American soldiers in Iraq, the genocidal anti-Israel pronouncements of its leadership, death sentence on novelist Salman Rushdie, or efforts to advance the worldwide Islamic revolution on which the regime is based, the American people have not forgotten the 30 years of enmity since Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1979 revolution.
However, even as the American people remained rightly skeptical of Iran in the last year of President Obama’s first term, the Obama White House had begun secret talks with the Ahmadinejad regime, which would result in the world’s acquiescence to Iran’s nuclear program.
Create an ‘Echo Chamber,’ Then Cast off Allies
How would the American people react to knowing that an administration, then still stinging from Republican critiques of its anti-Americanism and weakness on the world stage, was holding secret negotiations in Oman with the most powerful still-standing member of George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil”?
Under these conditions, Obama—with the help of an equally arrogant 38-year-old national security fabulist, Ben Rhodes (with whom he’s said to “mind-meld”)—succeeded in remaking the Middle East to empower America’s most hated enemy, the only United Nations member state committed to the annihilation of another state: the theocratic Islamic Republic of Iran.
Rhodes and Obama knew that, for anyone but the hard-left to accept a deal with America’s bitter enemy in Tehran, a new narrative needed to emerge, even if it was relatively transparent nonsense. As Rhodes explained to his bemused interviewer, David Samuels, in a New York Times Magazine profile this weekend, it was first necessary to lie to a corrupted and inexperienced American media about all sorts of things, beginning with the nature and intentions of the enemy Iranian regime. Subsequent lies were caked on, as the White House took advantage of a dangerous mix of journalists’ ignorance, their ideological and partisan commitment to the administration, and, finally, their career aspirations.
Rhodes said, “The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns… They literally know nothing.” Thus they will believe what he tells them. He also tells friendly non-governmental organizations and think tanks what he is telling the journalists. Those outlets produce “experts” whose expert opinion is just what Rhodes wants it to be. These ignorant young journalists thus have quotes that look like independent confirmation of the White House’s lies. Here’s how Samuels describes the scene:
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,’ [Rhodes] 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.’ (emphasis added)
Of course, spinning reporters and promoting experts isn’t exactly new; it’s been standard practice in political warfare since the birth of the first press corps. What’s both new and frightening is what Rhodes’ and Obama’s effort furthers. As Lee Smith sums up in the Weekly Standard,
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.
Rhodes’ ‘Plot Line’: Iran’s Newly Ascendant Moderates
First, the lies and the denials about the negotiations. It took months before a few dogged journalists started to ask questions about the talks Obama officials were engaged in with Ahmadinejad’s regime. In February 2013, then-State Department Spokesperson Victoria Nuland flatly denied “direct, secret bilateral talks with Iran.” Republicans on Capitol Hill were nervous about the rumors, but the media was willing to accept the State Department’s denial. The secret negotiations with Iran also alarmed America’s allies in Jerusalem, who had also been kept in the dark about their closest ally’s clandestine meetings with their most potent adversary.
Nuland’s successor, Jen Psaki, would later admit that, as Fox’s James Rosen reported, “the meetings stretched back to 2011.” By that time, as New York Times Magazine makes clear, Rhodes had fashioned a new origin story for the administration’s negotiations: that a “thaw” in American-Iranian relations was made possible by the election of Iranian “moderates” in the summer of 2013. Samuels writes of Rhodes:
He is adept at constructing overarching plotlines with heroes and villains, their conflicts and motivations supported by flurries of carefully chosen adjectives, quotations and leaks from named and unnamed senior officials. 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. (emphasis added)
One of the “overarching plotlines” Rhodes crafted credited Hassan Rouhani’s election in June with signaling a new willingness of Iranians to negotiate that the Obama administration then embraced. Obama, of course, would play the hero; the villains, however, numbered in the thousands, like the cast of “Ben Hur”: neocons, and those darkly loyal to Israel’s interests; partisan Republicans; knuckle-dragging warmongers, and other enemies of the peace.
Of course, it was all a lie. Firstly, Rouhani is no sort of moderate. He has presided over a steady uptick of executions of Iran’s dissidents, as well as sexual and religious minorities. Even more egregious, though, was the lie about the genesis of the negotiations, as Obama sent Rhodes and other select emissaries to talks with Iran’s hard-liner relentlessly anti-American president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad just as the latter was promising Israel’s annihilation.
Nevertheless, Psaki echoed this narrative, saying negotiations, “really picked up after [Iranian] President Rouhani’s election.” The clearest example of this (now obviously false) narrative was peddled directly to Congress, in testimony by Colin Kahl, deputy assistant to the president and national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden. On November 13, 2013, Kahl opened his remarks:
The long-simmering nuclear crisis with Iran is approaching a critical inflection point. The election of Hassan Rouhani, a moderate former nuclear negotiator, as Iran’s new president has re-energized diplomacy between Iran and the P5+1 (the United States, Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia). Sanctions have taken a heavy toll on the Iranian economy, and Rouhani believes he has a popular mandate and sufficient latitude from Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to reach an accommodation with the international community in exchange for lessening the pressure. The prospects for a comprehensive agreement to peacefully resolve the nuclear impasse have never been higher.
Obama’s ‘Compadres’ and ‘Force Multipliers’ in Action
Now, as Samuels reports, the White House knew it had enough political will and ideological accomplices in the media to jam the story down Americans’ throats and score a political victory:
Rhodes has become adept at ventriloquizing many people at once. Ned Price, Rhodes’s assistant, gave me a primer on how it’s done. The easiest way for the White House to shape the news, he explained, is from the briefing podiums…. ‘But then there are sort of these force multipliers,’ he said, adding, ‘We have our compadres, I will reach out to a couple people, and you know I wouldn’t want to name them—‘
‘I can name them,’ I said, ticking off a few names of prominent Washington reporters and columnists who often tweet in sync with White House messaging.
Price laughed. ‘I’ll say, “Hey, look, some people are spinning this narrative that this is a sign of American weakness,”’ he continued, ‘but—’
‘In fact it’s a sign of strength!’ I said, chuckling. (emphasis added)
Samuels is chuckling because the game is so obviously rigged, even an outside observer would notice the con man’s shills trying unsuccessfully to blend into the crowd. Among the honor-role of “compadres” Rhodes has “become adept at ventriloquizing” are Zach Beauchamp and Max Fisher—two leftist Vox.com writers who couldn’t more closely resemble Rhodes’ remark, “they literally know nothing.”
Beauchamp is notorious for alleging the existence of a bizarre land-bridge between Gaza and the West Bank which (naturally) the Israelis use as a weapon of war against peaceful Palestinian commuters. Fisher was recently plucked from Vox.com to ply his trade at The New York Times where, evidently, policy expertise and basic subject matter knowledge aren’t as important as eagerness to both take nasty swipes at Israel and play Rhodes’ ventriloquist dummy.
This brings us to al-Monitor’s Laura Rozen. Perhaps no other reporter in Washington is as identified with voicing the point of view of both the Iranian regime and the White House. Unfortunately for the American people, this is anything but a difficult balancing act: the party line, in both cases, is almost always identical. Rozen’s relentlessness in being on-message earned her a mention in the Times by White House Director of Digital Rapid Response Tanya Somanader, who ran the administration’s Iran Deal Twitter. “Laura Rozen was my RSS feed,” Somanader told Samuels. “She would just find everything and retweet it.”
Rozen’s willingness to swallow the administration’s lie—sorry, Rhodes’ “overarching plotline”—that was manifestly untrue about the origin of the U.S.-Iran negotiations was, as always, total. Here she is in al-Monitor on October 15, 2013:
US Secretary of State John Kerry met for thirty minutes with Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in New York last month. Noting the meeting, and the historic phone call between Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and President Obama, a senior U.S. Administration official told journalists Monday that ‘rubicon’ had been crossed. ‘This is a direct consequence of Rouhani and Obama breaking the taboo,’ Ali Vaez, senior Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group, said of the US-Iranian meeting here Tuesday. (emphasis added)
To complete the echo chamber, others wrote very similar stories pushing Rhodes’ phony narrative. Here is CNN, authors Laura Smith-Spark and Jim Scutto, on October 16, 2013:
This week’s high-level talks in Geneva are the first such talks since the election of President Hassan Rouhani this summer raised the prospect of a shift in direction from Iran. During a visit to the U.N. General Assembly in September, Rouhani’s diplomatic approach raised hopes in the West of a thaw in relations with Tehran and progress in negotiations on its nuclear program. Rouhani’s visit culminated in a phone call with U.S. President Barack Obama and a meeting between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iran’s Zarif. (emphasis added)
Once Rhodes’ “force multipliers” in the media had cemented the narrative of a post-Ahmadinejad “thaw” in relations that led to negotiations, the White House was able to weaponize it against deal skeptics. First, it was used against French President François Hollande, a doubter of the nuclear talks. “Why France Is to Blame for Blocking the Iran Nuclear Agreement,” blared Daily Beast writer Christopher Dickey on November 10, 2013:
After years of discussions, the world’s major powers had finally devised a promising deal to stop Iran’s worrisome nuclear program—until France’s petty bureaucrats thwarted the plan. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s high-profile visit to New York during the United Nations General Assembly, a phone call between him and President Barack Obama, and repeated positive signals from Tehran—even from the supposedly hard-line Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei—had raised expectations had raised hopes of a thaw in U.S.-Iranian relations after more than three decades of hostility. (emphasis added)
The White House also used its weaponized “force multipliers” in what was evidently a Rhodes-led campaign to shout down opponents of the Iran deal. The Wall Street Journal’s Sohrab Ahmari recounted the pushback against an op-ed he’d written following Rouhani’s election in June 2013. Speaking about those “force multipliers,” Ahmari noted:
(6) Their message discipline was remarkable. It was as if they'd all received the same memo. Skeptics were shut out and ridiculed.
— Sohrab Ahmari (@SohrabAhmari) May 6, 2016
(7) There were variations in tone. But on the main issues the Rouhani government, the US Iran lobby and most of the prestige press agreed.
— Sohrab Ahmari (@SohrabAhmari) May 6, 2016
(8) The main line was that it's either deal or war. Also that Washington and Tehran should overcome hard-liners on both sides.
— Sohrab Ahmari (@SohrabAhmari) May 6, 2016
(9) As if John McCain, Mark Kirk and Netanyahu, etc. were no better, morally, than the ayatollahs who stone women and hang gays.
— Sohrab Ahmari (@SohrabAhmari) May 6, 2016
(10) Every instance of Iranian aggression and duplicity was attributed to the "hard-liners." Rouhani was an innocent lamb.
— Sohrab Ahmari (@SohrabAhmari) May 6, 2016
The White House’s “force multipliers” were put to work every time the American people got too close to the truth about the Iran deal. This was most in evidence while a few intrepid reporters at the Wall Street Journal or Associated Press broke revelations of numerous radical Obama administration giveaways, especially the Parchin side deal.
Iran was allowed to make a deal with the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect itself, and the terms of this deal were never turned over to Congress as the Corker-Cardin law required. Once again, friendly media action covered illegal action. Ignorant journalists who knew nothing but what they had been fed were willing partners in shutting down the debate. This gave cover for the president’s few allies in the Senate to stage their filibuster. It was successful, as the Senate never voted to accept or reject the Iran deal. The failure to disclose the side deals’ terms to Congress violated the Corker-Cardin law.
Similarly, the White House’s pet journalists fell all over themselves making sure that every outlet in America described the post-deal elections in Iran as a victory, inevitably, for the theocracy’s “moderates.” They described the election in glowing terms, as if it were a clear endorsement of openness brought about by Obama’s wisdom.
Rather, the elections should have been seen as a rebuke of the president’s policy, as 99 percent of reformist candidates were disqualified before any votes were ever cast. To even compete, so-called “moderate” parties were forced to accept hard-liners loyal to Khamenei. The elections thus cemented hard-liner control of Iran as never before. Ayatollah Khamenei, to underline this, declared that anyone who thought that the future of Iran was in diplomacy instead of missiles was either a fool or a traitor. But if you read it in American newspapers, thanks to Rhodes, you’d think that Iran has continued moderating in a positive direction.
The effect of national security policy enacted and cheered on in the press in this way has been disastrous, as real experts tried to warn us it would be. Those experts were shouted down by a mob that “literally knows nothing,” but is happy to participate in a mutually beneficial information operation.
‘Restructuring the Narrative,’ Whether You Want It or Not
The White House’s political war on Iran deal opponents reconfigured the debate as a partisan issue, as Rhodes had planned. With the very notable exception of the Associated Press’ Matt Lee, most of Washington’s journalists, who are supposed to be the eyes and ears of the American people, actively helped them.
In the New York Times Magazine, Rhodes—and, by extension, the president he continues to work for—confessed to misleading the media, members of Congress, and the American people, all in service of a truly massive re-alignment of the nation’s interests and security.
Abandoning longtime allies while embracing states that have long been enemies is a massive strategic shift more momentous than what can ordinarily be explained as “foreign policy”; in a free society, it requires the assent of the American people. Like its manipulation of the Constitution’s treaty process, this White House subverted that assent to convince Americans that they live in a different, less dangerous world.
Operating as if we live in that different world, though, is a treacherous illusion. Some of the tangible results, not yet a year after the Iran deal: the consolidation of hard-liner power in Iran; the collapse of the ban on Iran’s testing of ballistic missiles; the collapse of the arms control regimes preventing Iran from buying heavy weapons and missiles from Russia; Iran’s staging of multiple new ballistic missile tests; and, finally, that Iran has generated so much new enriched uranium, they’ve had to ship tons to Russia.
Reconstructing the truth isn’t new for Rhodes who, based on Samuels’ account, still clings to the juvenile literary tastes and the mock rebellious pose of the Williamsburg hipster he once was. Samuels writes,
When I asked Jon Favreau, Obama’s lead speechwriter in the 2008 campaign, and a close friend of Rhodes’s, whether he or Rhodes or the president had ever thought of their individual speeches and bits of policy making as part of some larger restructuring of the American narrative, he replied, ‘We saw that as our entire job.’
It’s a fair bet that most Americans didn’t sign onto a duplicitous “larger restructuring of the American narrative” by junior fiction writers when they sent Obama to the White House in 2008. But it’s what the country got and, thanks to Rhodes’ work creating his “force multipliers” of freshly minted star journalists and partisan experts, will continue to get.