Remember the Iran deal? Of course you do. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was one of the greatest diplomatic agreements of our time, a last-ditch effort to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear bomb and thus avert inevitable military action by the United States and its allies. Hard negotiations provided a verifiable inspections plan that would keep Iran walking the straight and narrow for at least a decade, if not longer. The media, of course, served only as the impartial platform for analysis and debate.
Anyone who doubted this narrative or raised almost any objections to the deal was just a hater, maybe even a racist with a personal grudge against Barack Obama. (Also against the deal, of course: Jews with divided loyalties.) After all, the experts—non-partisan, of course—assured us that everything was in order.
This was all nonsense. What really happened was that the White House put out a set of talking points, not all of them true or accurate, to a trusted circle of journalists and advocacy groups. Those groups worked with experts in other groups, who then supported those talking points in media already friendly to the White House narrative. Asked for comment, the White House agreed with the experts it had primed, then fed more talking points back into the loop.
We no longer have to speculate about this. As anyone paying attention now knows, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes—it’s so hard to type those words—couldn’t help but take a victory lap in front of The New York Times. Rhodes named names and organizations, crowing that the White House had created “an echo chamber” mainly composed of journalists who are “27 years old and…literally know nothing.”
Follow the Money, Indeed
Critics of the Rhodes story have pushed back, in some cases with justification. Rhodes’s shot at Jeffery Goldberg of The Atlantic, for example, was inexplicable and gratuitous; Goldberg is neither 27 nor a greenhorn. On the other hand, Rhodes also named Al-Monitor’s Laura Rozen, to absolutely no one’s surprise. As Mark Hemingway has noted, “Rozen’s slavish devotion to Obama’s Iran policy has been something to behold,” and Rhodes naming her seems almost beside the point now.
Iran deal defenders claim this is all a nothingburger. Rhodes never had that much influence, they say, and no one really adopted his talking points. The experts he claims to have pulled along on the deal were impartial analysts who liked the JCPOA anyway. After all, it’s not like anyone was spreading money around; indeed, the accusation of being on the take was mostly aimed at the deal’s opponents, who ostensibly stood to benefit from another war in the Middle East.
Except there was plenty of money out there. The Ploughshares Fund has been completely upfront about the cash it dumped on other groups before and during the Iran deal debate. Let’s leave aside some of the arms-control experts, since I think it’s fair to say there is no circumstance in which those organizations would oppose a nuclear deal between Obama’s White House and the Iranians. (Whether they sugar-coated aspects of the deal is another matter, but we’ll get back to that.)
What should raise more eyebrows was that Ploughshares didn’t limit its largess to like-minded groups about nuclear weapons (the issue to which Ploughshares, in theory, is dedicated). Ploughshares and its chairman, Joe Cirincione, also dropped some serious coin on National Public Radio, to the tune of some $700,000 since 2005, with grants since 2010—spoiler alert—specifically mentioning Iran. NPR then had Cirincione on to explain the awesomeness of the nuclear deal, at least once forgetting to mention he’d given them several hundred thousand dollars.
Later, Cirinicione hammered home his totally non-partisan and completely independent expert view in a Huffington Post article, in moment replete with both chutzpah and irony.
Neoconservatives are furious that their efforts to trick the country into another unnecessary war in the Middle East failed. They spent tens of millions of dollars in an orchestrated campaign to kill diplomacy with Iran. They lost. The nuclear agreement with Iran is in place and working. It has prevented an Iranian bomb and prevented a new war.
“They can’t stand it,” Cirinicione mugged, as though Iran deal opponents had lost a vote for class president. (Rhodes put it differently: “We drove them crazy.”) Cirincione went on like that, but you get the idea.
We’re Spending Money for No Reason At All
The idea that the Obama administration was ever going to go to war over the Iranian nuclear program is ridiculous, but it was a central talking point during the fight over the JCPOA. To believe Obama would have used force against Iran would have represented either incredible credulity, or revealed a conscious effort to participate in a campaign meant to create an echo chamber, in which…
As if that wasn’t enough of a margin of safety, Ploughshares shot some money over to that well-known group of physicists and nuclear strategists, J Street. Of course, J Street isn’t an arms-control group. It’s a political organization, in theory dedicated to greater Israeli security but in reality a progressive advocate for any number of policies which are inimical to Israeli interests.
This isn’t the place to rehash J Street’s left-wing record, which speaks for itself. But why was Ploughshares giving money—over a half million dollars—to a political advocacy group? Good question. J Street’s response was a vow that it took the money “to advance the nuclear agreement with Iran out of the belief that this is an important agreement which contributes mightily to Israel’s security.”
Ploughshares and everyone else involved in this hackery quickly responded by promising that their motives were only of the purest public interest. In a laugh-out-loud moment, Ploughshares spokeswoman Jennifer Abrahamson actually said that dropping a pile of money on NPR “does not influence the editorial content of their coverage in any way, nor would we want it to.” That’s because, remember, Ploughshares is non-partisan: just because Cirincione has said that “President Obama’s political opponents try to block everything he does,” that doesn’t make him a partisan.
He said that on NPR, by the way.
What’s the Real Game Here?
The smug admissions by Rhodes and others that the “echo chamber” was real and did its job are grating. But to focus on Rhodes and Cirincione spiking the football is to miss a more important question: Why did everyone go to such lengths over a deal that was supposed to be so good?
Rhodes, of course, says it’s because everyone but the White House and its friends were too stupid to understand how smart the deal was. The real answer, however, is as unsettling as it is simple: selling the deal required subterfuge and misdirection because the Iran deal was never about nuclear weapons.
The White House and its supporters were set on two goals, one of them trivial, the other terrifying. The trivial objective was to give a failed presidency at least one foreign policy legacy item. That was to be expected, since the Obama administration, in permanent campaign mode since the day the president took office, has presided over the worst American foreign policy in the modern era.
The more stomach-churning objective is that the administration, as it turned out, really believed in its pledges to get America out of the Middle East, and decided early on that the only way to do this was to replace the United States in the region with a duumvirate of Russia and Iran. Here, the JCPOA was part of a huge gamble to transform the region, with nuclear weapons the secondary rather than primary issue. That’s why J Street and others were involved: they were far less concerned with notional Iranian nuclear weapons than they were with advancing President Obama’s Middle East legacy—without having to admit what it was.
Many of us who opposed the Iran deal suspected this was going on, but we could only reconstruct evidence for that suspicion indirectly. (One analyst who got it right early: Mike Doran, previously of the Bush 43 National Security Countil and the Brookings Institution, and now at the Hudson Institute.) But then Rhodes shot his mouth off to The New York Times, thus saving the rest of us any further detective work.
This Wasn’t About Nukes At All
Knowing that Rhodes stage-managed the message, then gave it to allies with checks to write—including to the media—renders any other debate on the details of the JCPOA pointless. This is where these revelations undermined “expert” views: the experts were baited into arguing over details that were, in the main, irrelevant.
It makes no difference if this or that provision of the deal is ironclad, because the White House never had an intention of enforcing any of it. The JCPOA wasn’t a deal to stop a nuclear weapon, it was part of a plan to further a foreign policy agenda with which very few Americans would agree if it were stated to them clearly and unequivocally.
For those of us who thought the Iran deal didn’t pass the sniff test from the start, it is bitter consolation that all this is coming out now. Sometimes being right isn’t much of a comfort, and this is one of those times. But there’s a far more damaging problem in all this: not only has the United States burned a lot of its credibility in this farce, but so have a fair number of journalists and experts.
I don’t expect arms-control groups not to take money from other groups. If the Arms Control Association is getting a grant from Ploughshares, good on them; that’s what they’re supposed to do. But when the White House’s point man on the deal brags about creating an echo chamber, then names a group that turns out to be funding not only the sources of expert advice but a major journalistic outlet, that damages everyone in the debate.
We’re Better than You So We Can Break the Rules
As Rhodes himself admitted, another administration might be able to make the same play:
When…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.’
Donald Trump, take note. (Hillary Clinton already knows how to do this, and didn’t need any additional encouragement.)
In this, Rhodes and his minions are the living embodiment of the true motto of the Obama administration: Quod licet Iovi, non licet bovi, or “What is permissible for the gods is not allowed for cattle.” You little people in the next administration shouldn’t try what Obama and Rhodes and their enablers did; that’s only for special and virtuous people like…well, like Obama and Rhodes and their enablers.
I opposed the Iran deal because I could see, as others did ahead of me, that this was an exercise in flawed negotiation that violated almost every basic rule of Diplomacy 101. But I am especially pained by the role of experts here, because—as incredible as this will seem—I largely agree with the goals of organizations like Ploughshares.
I think we have too many nuclear weapons. (I don’t see anyone getting to zero, but we can get to “very low.”) I think the United States is too reliant on outdated notions of nuclear deterrence. As I have argued at in print and at length, I believe our nuclear strategy is unrealistic and I believe using nuclear weapons is fundamentally immoral.
I have been on the same side of these experts in many debates. But after the Iran deal, this is one time I wish some of the people on my side weren’t on my side.