Every once in a while in the endless spin cycle that makes up politics in a hyper-mediated era, a key operative provides some actual clarity. That is what happened over the weekend when the apparent other lobe of President Barack Obama's brain for communicating geopolitics, known as Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes, unburdened himself in a New York Times Sunday Magazine profile.
In the course of lengthy discussions with writer David Samuels about how the Obama National Security Council goes about spinning the world, Rhodes thoroughly trashes the state of substantive journalism, expresses deep contempt for America's foreign policy establishment, and discusses how he and others crafted a "narrative" about the achievement of a controversial nuclear deal with Iran's latter-day "moderate" government. But, while Rhodes raises largely valuable points about the grave deficiencies of the current news media and long-term foreign policy establishment, what he doesn't address is the lack of preparedness on the part of the administration in dealing with a chaotic world it may be making even more chaotic.
"Most of the outlets," notes Rhodes, "are reporting on world events from Washington. The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That's a sea change. They literally know nothing."
As for the US foreign policy establishment, Rhodes refers to it as "the Blob." It consists of the likes of "Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates, and other Iraq War promoters from both parties who now whine incessantly about the collapse of the American security order in Europe and the Middle East."
That's harsh, but Rhodes seems pretty much on track about the devolutionary state of journalism and the intellectual ineptitude of a foreign policy establishment that backed one of the stupidest wars in world history.
Rhodes brags to Samuels about how he and administration operatives take advantage of the ignorance of most journalists and the current hyper-partisan media mode of ping-ponging in social media to pump out scads of spin pushing the Obama line vs. conservatives. Who of course have their own conveyer belt.
It's all part of a media culture focused on heat rather than light.
Of course, this being an ironic post-modern era, the author of the profile -- who injects himself repeatedly in his own narrative -- fails to mention that he is himself a player in these spin cycles.
Samuels, it turns out, was a vociferous opponent of the nuclear deal with Iran. He even backed an Israeli attack on Iran.
He uses part of his profile on Rhodes to argue that the White House case for the Iranian nuclear deal is all Rhodesian spin, based on the false premise of a a new "moderate" regime when Obama's moves predate the election of President Hassan Rouhani. Well, Obama probed for the Iranian deal before Rouhani's arrival in office in 2013. But the deal came later, once Rouhani took what power he has in the Islamic Republic headed by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Of more concern is that Rhodes acknowledges that the Obama NSC is not sure about the relative balance of power in Iran even after the apparent moderate victory.
There is, however, plenty of evidence that Iran is no more a friend of the US now than it was before, as a vignette with Rhodes being quite upset that news of Iran taking JS Navy boat crews captive broke so quickly in January while the White House touted the Iranian nuclear deal makes clear.
But who really believes Americans would support yet another Middle East war to prevent Iran going the next step to nuclear weaponry, the premise of which is that Iran would be uniquely, irrationally impervious to nuclear deterrence? While I find the deal a bit leaky, it may do some good in fending off any Iranian move to go nuclear in the near to medium term.
Rhodes, far more explicitly, makes the same point Obama did in his fascinating Atlantic interview with the estimable Jeffrey Goldberg. They want the US to disengage as much as possible from the intractable conflicts of the Middle East in order to focus more on critical questions of the future around the Asia-Pacific and climate change.
That's a reasonable long-range objective. The question is whether this administration has had the intellectual and political capability to get there.
Rhodes is presented in the article as arguably the key NSC operator, but had no military, intelligence, academic, journalistic, or geopolitical background prior to his mother arranging for him to become a writer for the Iraq Study Group. From there, he rather swiftly became the principal crafter of geopolitical narratives for Obama in this era in which spin is frequently substituted for substance.
His pre-Iraq Study Group qualification? Getting a master's degree in fine arts (fiction writing) from New York University.
Frankly, too much of the Obama White House has been like that. Folks who haven't been to countries in question, if they've been at all, as anything but delegation members. Things look very different if you're on the ground out in the midst of a society.
If any had, say, backpacked through Afghanistan, Obama's pointless Afghan escalation might have been avoided. Similarly if Rhodes and his associates had ever served in the military, they might have understood the need to strike Isis from the air much earlier on, when it would have made more of a difference than it did after months of analysis/paralysis and diplo-speak.
And if Obama himself had grasped the need to have senior-level uniforms to run interference for him, he would not have so blithely tossed away supportive Marine four-stars Jim Jones and Hoss Cartwright when they ran afoul, respectively, of Obama civilian staffers maneuvering for internal power and Pentagon brass intent on the Afghan surge.
Of course, the greatest irony in relying on such as Rhodes, who has done good work, is that the great communicator who was Senator Obama has become the relative mute who is President Obama.
In a time which cries out for sustained clarity and the ongoing articulation of enlightened, shrewd substance, the Obama White House has chosen instead to operate mainly in the shadows, pursuing secret drone and special ops wars and surveillance buildups even as they assert a better relationship with a still obviously hostile Iran.
It could and should have gone differently. And now it is nearly over.
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