There continues to be fallout from the profile of Obama adviser Ben Rhodes that appeared in Sunday’s New York Times magazine last week.
Much of discussion of the article has surrounded who demonstrated bad faith, the Obama administration or Samuels. There are two targets of the criticism. In the MSM and left-leaning media the villain is David Samuels for writing a hatchet job on the administration. In the right-leaning media the villain is the administration for lying about the nuclear deal with Iran.
But the question of dishonesty or bad faith is less important than the system Samuel described. From the administration’s view, the article was, according to Lee Smith, “a victory lap,” a boast of how they bested their political opponents and mastered the media.
Little attention has been paid to exactly how the “echo chamber” Ben Rhodes boasted about actually worked.
How the Echo Chamber Worked
Tom Nichols, last year, as work leaked out Iran would be able to self-inspect its nuclear facilities according to the deal, observed that the Associated Press was subjected to what seemed to be an orchestrated attack by supporters of the deal for reporting it. He noted at the time “What this story is really about is the politicization of expertise, and how far things can go when one group of experts (arms controllers) decides to fight by impugning the expertise of another group (in this case, reporters) for the sake of public theater.”
At the time, Nichols didn’t suggest that the White House was the one orchestrating the attacks on the AP, but in retrospect all the elements of the story described by Nichols, match Rhodes’ description of his echo chamber.
But the echo chamber wasn’t only used to distract from inconvenient details about the deal, it also was about influencing opinions.
One of the deal’s supporters who questioned Samuels’ account was Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution, described how the Obama administration got the deal to pass the Senate:
Rhodes’ masterstroke in selling the deal came in appropriating an argument that was already circulating among advocates of diplomacy with Iran—that war was the only viable alternative to an agreement. While many—including me—disputed this argument, it proved to be Rhodes’ money shot. The opponents of the deal never managed to muster a persuasive case to the contrary or to articulate a credible alternative that better served U.S. interests. In Congress’ review of the nuclear agreement, this absence of a compelling alternative ultimately sealed the deal.
This is telling and highly misleading. Remember that the deal was opposed by a majority of Americans. A Quinnipiac poll in August of last year, a month before the Senate was scheduled to vote on the found that American rejected the deal by a 2 – 1 margin. A Gallup poll from February of this year, a month after implementation of the deal began and sanctions were lifted on Iran, Americans opposed the deal by nearly the same ratio. The truth is that the administration never marshaled a persuasive case for the deal.
In the end there was no vote in the Senate taken as the language of the Corker-Cardin bill meant that the deal could go through unless 60 senators disapproved it. Since the deal was an executive agreement – President Obama knew that if it would be a treaty he’d never get the 67 votes to support the deal – the Corker-Cardin bill provided the only legislative review of the deal, but at the cost of allowing a minority of Senators block an up-or-down vote on the treaty. Obama knew that he couldn’t event get a majority of the Senate to support the deal, so it was political maneuvering to get a minority of the Senate to block true legislative oversight of the deal. Polls showed consistently that majorities of Americans favored legislative oversight of and a Senate vote on the deal.
Or pay attention to many of the senators who supported the deal but still wrote critiques of the deal that would have otherwise been cases to vote no. These examples expose the political nature of support for the deal, rather than its virtues on policy grounds.
Political maneuvering, especially cynical political maneuvering, is not the same as persuasion.
The Role Jeffrey Goldberg Played
Which brings us to Jeffrey Goldberg. Goldberg also criticized Samuels’ reporting, but Goldberg had a stake in voicing his objections. He was one of the journalists actually named by Samuels as having been used by the administration to get the deal passed. But Goldberg protested “I have not been an overly enthusiastic advocate of the Iran deal.”
Yes Goldberg consistently expressed doubts about the deal, but in the end he supported it.
But again Goldberg’s claim is misleading. Obama didn’t need him to advocate for the deal. In fact given the role that Goldberg played, his skepticism was helpful.
Remember that Obama only got 42 Democratic Senators to support the deal, so he had to convince them to do out of party loyalty and that it wouldn’t hurt them politically. Obama knew that the most prominent voice against the deal who would have a following in the United States was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Goldberg’s role was to run interference against Netanyahu.
Goldberg had advantages to play this role. He is regarded as pro-Israel and unlike, someone like Thomas Friedman, he is connected to the Jewish community. (When Obama addressed a synagogue last year he spoke at Adas Israel in Washington DC, of which Goldberg is a member.)
In an October 2014 article, Goldberg quoted a senior Obama official who called Netanyahu a foul (or should I say fowl?) name. The article was titled The Crisis in U.S.-Israel Relations Is Officially Here and it amplified the administration’s complaints about Netanyahu. The litany of complaints included that Netanyahu was all bluster when it came to Iran, he didn’t do enough to make peace with the Palestinians and that he was only interested in holding onto power.
Goldberg wrote in the article:
Israel and the U.S., like all close allies, have disagreed from time to time on important issues. But I don’t remember such a period of sustained and mutual contempt. Much of the anger felt by Obama administration officials is rooted in the Netanyahu government’s periodic explosions of anti-American condescension.
He summed up the article by attributing a worldview to Netanyahu that “The whole world is against us. Only we can protect Israel from what’s coming.” and dismissed this writing “But for Israel’s future as an ally of the United States, this formula is a disaster.” The gist of Goldberg’s article and all of his supporting evidence is that Netanyahu precipitated a crisis in U.S. Israeli relations. Or as Goldberg himself wrote, “The fault for this breakdown in relations can be assigned in good part to the junior partner in the relationship, Netanyahu.”
(Prof Jacobson correctly characterized the thrust of the article as “I don’t think there is a crisis in U.S.-Israel relations, but one in Obama-Israel relations.”)
A few months later, right before Netanyahu spoke before Congress last year, Goldberg weighed in with A Partial Accounting of the Damage Netanyahu Is Doing to Israel, which begins:
It would be reassuring—sort of—to believe that Benjamin Netanyahu decided to set the U.S.-Israel relationship on fire mainly because he fears that President Obama is selling out Israel. But Netanyahu’s speech to Congress on March 3—a speech arranged without Obama’s knowledge by Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer and by Obama’s chief Republican rival, House Speaker John Boehner—is motivated by another powerful fear: the fear of unemployment. The message Bibi is preparing to deliver on Tuesday (a “statesmanlike message,” according to an official close to him) has as its actual target not Congress but, instead, Israeli voters who need reminding, in Netanyahu’s view, that he is the only leader strong enough to face down both the genocidal regime in Tehran and the Israel-loathing regime in Washington. (Make no mistake: Netanyahu sees Obama as an actual adversary. If only all of Israel’s adversaries would veto U.N. Security Council resolutions hostile to Israel…)
The message from these two lengthy articles (aside from attributing thoughts to the Israeli government) is that Netanyahu is self-interested, and because of that, not capable of understanding Israel’s best interests. Worse he’s sabotaging Israel’s friendship with the United States for his own short-term gains. (My point is not to dispute every single one of Goldberg’s charges against Netanyahu, I’m only illustrating his messaging.)
Of course there’s another reading of the situation. Despite the Israeli belief that Iran should be allowed no enrichment (which was the world’s consensus ten years ago), the administration over its first year of negotiations raised the limits on centrifuges allowed Iran from 500 to 1500 to 4000 to 6000. (5000 centrifuges would be enough to produce enough enriched uranium in one year for a nuclear bomb.)
Furthermore as Gen. Yaacov Amidror wrote, once the United States knew that it would allow Iran to keep its enrichment infrastructure, against Israeli wishes the “US therefore shifted to conducting secret negotiations that it hid from Israel.”
Aspects of the last two paragraphs were confirmed in a recent article in The New York Times:
Mr. Kerry denies ever signaling to Iran that it had a right to enrich. “We made it crystal clear to them,” he said. At the same time, he held out to the Iranians the prospect of their having a peaceful nuclear program, and he was dismissive of hard-liners in Israel and the United States who demanded that Iran dismantle its nuclear infrastructure.
In allowing Iran the “right” to enrich, the administration ignored Israeli concerns. (The administration said that Iran would never agree to such a deal. But it’s pretty clear that the administration didn’t even try.)
In any case Goldberg’s efforts to portray Netanyahu as a short-sighted politician only interested in his own career had to be very useful for Obama. If a senator in a state with a large Jewish population like Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D – N.Y) or Sen. Corey Booker (D – N.J.) were hesitant about supporting a deal that would strengthen an enemy of the United States and threaten an American ally, Obama could say, “See, even Jeffrey Goldberg, a pro-Israel journalist, sees that Netanyahu is not acting in Israel’s best interests.” Without Goldberg’s confirmation of the administration’s view of Netanyahu, Obama’s claim that the deal was good for Israel would be ludicrous. (I still think that it’s ludicrous, but it gave the likes of Gillibrand and Booker a pretext to say that the deal is good for Israel and justify their vote in support of the deal.)
Finally, when considering how Jeffrey Goldberg provided the echo chamber for the administration to marginalize Netanyahu, remember that in 2012, Obama went to Goldberg and told him, “I think both the Iranian and the Israeli governments recognize that when the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say,” and later that “we’ve got Israel’s back.”
Goldberg was thus essential to Obama’s case to the American pro-Israel community.
No They Didn’t Have Israel’s Back
In last week’s profile of Rhodes, David Samuels, the author asked for Defense Secretary Leon Panetta about the nuclear deal from his perspective. Panetta said that when he was at the CIA, contrary to the administration’s narrative, they saw no difference between Iranian moderates and hardliners. He also told Samuels that one of his main jobs as defense secretary was to prevent Israel from bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities.
When Samuels asked him point blank if he believed as he once did if Obama intended to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, Panetta answered “probably not.”
Goldberg may protest that he was unfairly portrayed, but an examination of his columns shows that he played a role in validating President Obama’s scheme to conclude and sell an unpopular and dangerous deal with Iran.Rather than expressing his disdain for David Samuels who exposed the echo chamber of which he was a part, maybe he should save some outrage for the administration that used him to promote its good faith towards Israel and then betrayed its guarantee of having Israel’s back.
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