You Can Trust the Echo Chamber About That Controversial Ben Rhodes Profile

Ben Rhodes
The puppet master. Photo: SAUL LOEB/This content is subject to copyright.

Earlier this month, The New York Times Magazine published a profile of deputy national-security adviser Ben Rhodes. The piece argued that Rhodes’s unique narrative gifts and mastery of social-media technology — combined with the ineptitude of a beleaguered political press — allowed the Obama administration to “actively mislead” the public during the debate over the Iran deal. Specifically, reporter David Samuels wrote that the White House created an echo chamber, inundating “often-clueless reporters” with “freshly minted experts” who repeated Rhodes’s carefully crafted talking points until they attained the status of objective facts. This spin ultimately robbed the public of the opportunity to engage in “a divisive but clarifying debate over the actual policy choices” that the administration was making — policy choices that amounted to nothing less than “a large-scale disengagement from the Middle East.”

A lot of journalists thought this analysis was wrong — or, at the very least, poorly substantiated. Many wrote articles detailing their objections. Others read those articles and wrote pieces that reiterated the existing complaints, while adding a few novel ones of their own. Tweets were exchanged. A consensus was formed. And David Samuels shook his head, watching as the echo chamber killed the possibility of an open, rational debate about the issues he was actually raising.

It has been fascinating for me to watch my story, which was largely read on its own terms outside of Washington and even by the White House itself, go through the looking glass of social media,” Samuels wrote Friday. “The story itself has vanished, replaced by a digital mash-up of slurs and invective, supported by stray phrases that have been mechanically tweezered from different texts.”

In the column, Samuels repeatedly accuses his critics of failing to engage with “the text” of his profile and the substantive issues contained within it — even as he fails to engage the most substantive complaints leveled by his critics.

Before we get into those, let’s look at the two critiques Samuels does address. First, he disputes the idea that he is “an ‘ardent opponent of the Iran deal’ and ‘neocon’ who, by writing this article, was plotting to sow seeds of mistrust” about a policy he’d long opposed. Second, he argues that his description of the journalists Jeffrey Goldberg and Laura Rozen as “retailers” of the Obama administration’s talking points was fair and backed up by his reporting.

As to the former, Samuels notes that this characterization was built off of exactly two pieces of evidence: a Slate piece he wrote in 2009 that made “the rational argument for an Israeli attack on Iran,” and his participation in an April 2015 panel discussion titled “What’s wrong with the proposed nuclear deal with Iran.”

On the first point, Samuels argues that his Slate piece was not a work of personal advocacy, but rather “an exercise in rational choice superpower-client state theory.” Which is to say, he was not trying to convince his readers that they should support an Israeli attack on Iran, but merely making the case that such an attack was in Israel’s rational interest, as defined by this particular theory of international relations.

This is a fair argument, if not entirely convincing. The Slate piece is certainly framed as a work of analysis, not opinion. But that analysis essentially amounts to: An Israeli attack on Iran would create the political conditions necessary for a two-state solution, and this outcome would be very good for virtually everyone involved. Here’s how the piece concludes:

Israel’s version of a nuclear grand bargain that brings peace to the Middle East may be messier and more violent than what the Obama administration imagines can be accomplished through sanctions, blandishments, and the invocation of Barack Obama’s magic middle name.

But who can really argue with the idea of trading the Iranian nuclear bomb for a Palestinian state? Saudi Arabia would be happy. Egypt would be happy. Bahrain, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates would be happy. Jordan would be happy. Iraq would be happy. Two-thirds of the Lebanese would be happy. The Palestinians would go about building their state, and Israel would buy itself another 40 years as the only nuclear-armed country in the Middle East. Iran would not be happy.

 But who said peace won’t have a price?

I suppose it’s possible to read this as a disinterested analysis of how Israel sees its rational interest. It doesn’t read that way to me. And the way Samuels tried to frame his analysis as one shared by Obama himself in his Friday column seems … actively misleading:

My analysis of how Israel might see its own rational self-interest was apparently shared by no less distinguished a neocon than President Obama. As Leon Panetta noted in my magazine article, perhaps his main job as secretary of defense was to restrain Israel from bombing Iran — by convincing them that America would do it for them, if Iran actually threatened to build a bomb.

Here’s what this paragraph convincingly establishes: Both Samuels and Obama believed that Israel was seriously considering a preemptive strike against Iran.

Here’s what this paragraph establishes in no way whatsoever: that Obama believed this because he recognized that such a strike would be in Israel’s “rational” interest, as defined by “superpower-client state theory.” In his Slate piece, Samuels notes that many observers believed Israel would launch a strike precisely because its political leaders were irrational. In fact, the whole premise of Samuels’s Slate article was that the idea of a “rational” Israeli attack was a contrarian one, or, as Samuels himself describes it, “intentionally provocative.”

And, obviously, the fact that Obama worked to prevent Israel from launching a strike suggests that his administration completely rejects Samuels’s broader analysis — that such an attack would actually create a more peaceful and stable Middle East. True, Samuels does not specifically claim that Obama backed this part of his argument. But he argues that his analysis wasn’t nearly as contentious as his critics claim by suggesting that Obama’s actions testified to its veracity. That suggestion is wildly misleading.

As for his remarks at that panel discussion about why the Iran deal was bad: Samuels explains that he was participating not as a neoconservative pundit, but as a journalist who had done extensive reporting on nuclear weapons. It’s true that, at one point in the discussion, he argued that the deal would unleash a potentially disastrous wave of nuclear proliferation — but he did so while assuming the hypothetical that this deal would undermine “existing nonenrichment standards.”

When it comes to the actual deal that was ultimately negotiated, Samuels says he is a tentative supporter. But he doesn’t explain why he believed his alarmist hypothetical to be plausible in April 2015. At that time, Iran had publicly agreed to a framework that required the nation to restrict its uranium enrichment to 3.67 percent for 15 years (bomb-grade uranium requires enrichment of above 90 percent).

After disputing the characterization of his ideological leanings, Samuels only addresses one other critique of his work: that he branded the journalists Jeffrey Goldberg and Laura Rozen as “retailers” of the administration’s talking points, without offering any supporting evidence for that characterization.

The reason I chose to cite Rozen and Goldberg as important conduits for the administration’s foreign policy message is based on two kinds of evidence. One: This very idea was suggested to me in taped interviews with White House staff members who dealt with these journalists; in interviews with other journalists; and in interviews with other people who read their work. Two: My own reading of both Rozen and Goldberg for years had suggested to me that this was a fair thing to say about their work.

Samuels’s case here would be strengthened by presenting specific quotes from these taped interviews, or, better, specific excerpts from Rozen and Goldberg’s reporting that betray an unmerited sympathy with the Obama administration’s narrative on a given subject.

Nonetheless, the great failing of Samuels’s profile was not that it contained a dig at two prominent journalists — though that is what Samuels would like you to believe (emphasis added):

If I didn’t name any of those journalists, readers might fairly conclude that Rhodes was in fact terrible at his job — or that journalists, especially those who live in Washington, belong to a special category of person who must never be criticized, even gently.

And this is why, I think, my story ignited such a firestorm. It was a portrait of an honest, dedicated person with a great deal of power in Washington who happens to be deeply critical of the press — not out of cynicism or anger, but out of regret over the seemingly vanishing possibilities of free and open discourse.

Whatever ignited the “firestorm” against Samuels’s piece, said firestorm was well deserved. If you peruse my initial critique of the profile, you’ll find many undisputed flaws in its argument. But since Samuels accuses his critics of failing to deal with his “text itself,” I’d like to examine a short paragraph of Samuels’s initial piece — one particularly dense with unsupported assertions.

After one of Rhodes’s communications operatives describes how he relays the administration’s message to friendly journalists — who then disseminate it across social media — Samuels writes:

This is something different from old-fashioned spin, which tended to be an art best practiced in person. In a world where experienced reporters competed for scoops and where carrying water for the White House was a cause for shame, no matter which party was in power, it was much harder to sustain a “narrative” over any serious period of time. Now the most effectively weaponized 140-character idea or quote will almost always carry the day, and it is very difficult for even good reporters to necessarily know where the spin is coming from or why.

The idea that social media has allowed political leaders to exert unprecedented top-down control over public discourse probably wouldn’t sit well with Hosni Mubarak or the GOP Establishment. And the notion that, pre-Twitter, it was hard for American presidents to sustain false narratives for “any serious period of time” is tough to digest for a lot of reasons, but to pick just one: In 2006, 50 percent of Americans still believed that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction at the time of the U.S. invasion. (In 2015, that number had eroded all the way to 42 percent).

Finally, Samuels’s central claim — that Ben Rhodes’s messaging operation and its "effectively weaponized tweets" almost always "carry the day" — is difficult to square with the current politics of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

By all accounts, the TPP is one of the Obama administration’s top second-term priorities. In their efforts to sell the deal, the administration has put forward a narrative that I believe to be intentionally misleading: Based on the analyses I’ve encountered (often whilst perusing Twitter), the TPP seems to be less about “free trade” than it is about establishing international copyright and patent protections favored by politically connected U.S. industries. Somehow, despite Obama’s command of the echo chamber, this counter-narrative has gained broad currency: This fall, both major-party candidates will be campaigning against the TPP (at least in its current form) — even though the (likely) Democratic standard-bearer is a former administration official who once sang the deal’s praises.

This raises the question: Why has the administration failed to market the TPP as successfully as it did the Iran deal?

One answer: It didn’t actually market the Iran deal very successfully, either. The American public has been bullish on Obama recently, but they still take a dim view of his foreign policy. The thesis of Samuels’s profile is that Ben Rhodes built a digital messaging operation so effective, it presents a novel threat to open discourse. In support of this (audacious) claim, Samuels marshals two pieces of evidence:

1. Rhodes and his deputies sometimes say things like that when bragging about how good they are at their jobs.

2. The Iran deal happened.

On the latter point: The Iran nuclear agreement didn’t go through because it won a national referendum; it went through because 42 Senate Democrats blocked a resolution of disapproval.

As the Washington Post’s Dan Drezner has noted, opponents of the Iran deal massively outspent supporters, and successfully increased public opposition over the summer of 2015. The White House actually lost the communications battle over the deal. But that didn’t matter, because most Americans just didn’t care all that much either way. Thus, Democratic senators faced no major political risk in standing by their president. Here is the great achievement of Rhodes’s masterful messaging operation: The public did not mobilize against the deal in large numbers, even though a plurality of Americans opposed it.

Samuels framed his Friday column around an unspoken “gentleman’s bet” he’d made with Rhodes. The master propagandist had “expressed a deep personal hopelessness about the possibility of open, rational public debate in a brutally partisan climate.” Samuels wagered that his article might restore Rhodes’s faith:

Over time, our conversations around this point evolved, without either of us directly mentioning it, into a kind of gentleman’s bet: My article would go as hard as I could at the truth as I saw it, The Times would publish it, and one of us would be proved right while the other would be proved wrong … It seems fair to say that Rhodes won our bet.

There are a lot of reasons to worry about the prospects of open, rational public debate in the United States. The critical response to David Samuels’s conception of “the truth” is not one of them.

Trust the Echo Chamber on That Ben Rhodes Piece