The path to the Iran nuclear deal was paved with official duplicity, media manipulation and a searing contempt for the American people.
So it emerges — without any apology — from the mouth of Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes in a current New York Times profile.
“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,” the report says.
The truth is that the basics of an agreement were already worked out in secret talks in 2012 by State Department officials Jake Sullivan and William Burns, and finalized by March 2013, three months before the “moderate” Rouhani took office as president.
To be sure, there have been worse tricks played in the selling of American foreign policy: the fictitious “missile gap” of the 1960 presidential campaign, Lyndon Johnson running as a peace candidate while planning war in Vietnam, and Nixon’s secret bombing of Cambodia.
This fudging of the chronology of the Iran negotiations is mild by comparison. But it’s not the only untruth that paved the way for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, the chief negotiator in Geneva, already admitted last year that a key provision of the inspection regime — that inspectors would have “anytime, anywhere” access to nuclear facilities — was nonexistent. The pledge, repeated over and over by senior officials, was, in her words, just “popular rhetoric” used to persuade the public to accept the deal. In reality, access was considerably more restricted.
The repeated assurances that “all options, including the military, remain on the table” in case Iran breaks its promise not to build a bomb, and that Israel has the sovereign right to take whatever action it deems necessary for its self-defense, also takes us across the line into that shadowland between fact and fiction.
Then-Israeli ambassador to Washington Michael Oren recalls in his book that “behind the scenes, the message was ‘Don’t dare.’” When he asked for clarification at the Pentagon, he was warned, “Don’t misunderstand: The way in which Israel deals with Iran will determine the future course of relations with the United States.”
It was the overriding importance of selling the Iran deal that justified these duplicities in the eyes of Washington policymakers. As Rhodes put it, “It’s the possibility of improved relations with adversaries. It’s nonproliferation.”
But why did they think this deliberate hoodwinking was necessary in order to win the support of the American people? Why couldn’t they present the facts as they were and let the people and their elected representatives decide if they wanted the deal or not?
Rhodes answers: “I mean, I’d prefer a sober, reasoned public debate, after which members of Congress reflect and take a vote,” he said. “But that’s impossible.” Impossible, that is, to rely on the common sense of ordinary people. Better to rely on the superior wisdom of the foreign policy experts.
Rhodes teaches us another lesson in Strategic Communications: The decline of the American newspaper has had a significant impact on policymaking. Presidents have always sought to manage the news. Sometimes it meant intimidating reporters with threats of being denied access to the White House, or going so far as trying to get certain especially troublesome journalists fired (JFK tried unsuccessfully to thus extract David Halberstam from Vietnam).
So that’s nothing new. But manipulating the press has in recent years become much easier. Major newspapers used to have correspondents stationed around the globe who developed their own sources of information and expertise in analyzing and interpreting events. Few news organizations can afford to have foreign bureaus these days, and so must depend on the White House and State Department for their information.
Journalistic training has also drastically thinned in the age of electronic media, in which how a reporter looks and sounds often means more to career advancement than any reportorial skill or experience.
As Rhodes says, “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.” That made it easy to feed them the administration line, confident that it would be conveyed to the public with a minimum of interference.
It was once said contemptuously of a young news producer whose background was in entertainment and lacked traditional journalistic training: “He doesn’t know what a fact is.” He knew very well how to splice compelling images and sounds, but the unglamorous work of checking for accuracy and getting at the truth of a story was foreign to him.
What Rhodes reveals, though, is that it’s not only the journalists who are unacquainted with the world of facts. Public officials like himself and Wendy Sherman are also shockingly disconnected from the rigors of fact-based communication.
The difference is that in the case of the reporters, they are laboring under the burden of ignorance and manipulation. They should do better; the journalism schools should train them to think more critically, to ask tough questions and not be spoon-fed.
But the reckoning for people like Rhodes and Sherman is entirely different. They did have access to the facts; they knew the truth. But they chose to be the purveyors of misinformation and lies. They thought they knew better.