Ben Rhodes’ Echo Chamber on Iran Had Many Supporters
In an interview he now probably regrets giving, Ben Rhodes, a top national security adviser to President Obama, admitted to manipulating journalists and online commentators in an effort to win support for the Iran nuclear deal. “We created an echo chamber,” Rhodes told David Samuels, who authored the piece that appeared in the New York Times Sunday Magazine on May 5, 2016. “They were saying things that validated what we had given them to say.”
The goal of Rhodes’ strategy was to provide cover for negotiations with a repressive, totalitarian state that has stayed in power by brutally suppressing its people, and is one of the leading purveyors of state-sponsored terrorism and genocidal antisemitism in the world today. Once the con was successful, Rhodes, who bragged of sharing a “mind meld” with President Obama, couldn’t resist telling everyone how he pulled it off.
One of the most troubling aspects of the story was its portrayal of Rhodes as he tried to keep Iran’s seizure of two small boats with American sailors out of the news, as to prevent the story from undermining the credibility of President Obama’s upcoming State of the Union speech — in which he promoted the Iran deal (but did not mention the sailors being held captive).
It’s an astounding scene. In Arab and Muslim countries in the Middle East, political leaders prevail upon the media, much of it state-run, to tell lies about Israel, the United States, and religious minorities in order to incite the population and keep them on a war footing. But in Samuels’ piece, we see Rhodes essentially doing the same thing — withholding the truth from the people he supposedly serves.
The only difference was that Rhodes’ goal was not to incite, but to pacify the American people — to make them more willing to tolerate negotiations with a regime that most Americans view with deep suspicion. A key part of Rhodes’ pacification strategy was to enlist non-profit organizations (“outside groups”), to broadcast his message. “We had test drives to know who was going to be able to carry our message effectively, and how to use outside groups like Ploughshares, the Iran Project and whomever else. So we knew the tactics that worked.”
Rhodes’ admission that he manipulated the press over an issue of such grave importance came as a shock to some media watchers.
In December 2015, Glenn Reynolds wrote that “It’s supposed to be the function of a free press to resist politicians’ efforts to duck important issues, not to help politicians duck important issues.” Given this background, it’s no surprise that Samuels’ piece evoked an angry response from journalists and supporters of the Iran deal.
One person who is particularly unhappy with Samuels’ article is Kate Gould, a lobbyist with the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL), which describes itself as a “Quaker Lobby in the Public Interest.” If Ben Rhodes did create an echo chamber to manipulate the press and public opinion on Iran, Gould — who has taken to Twitter to assail Samuels’ article — would know about it. She has been at the center of a campaign to generate support for negotiations with Iran since she began working at FCNL in 2007. She also had direct contact with Ben Rhodes. According to one of her emails, she had discussed “Iran directly with supporters of the JCPOA like Ben Rhodes and his opponents like Senator Cotton, and we [FCNL] look forward to continuing to do so.”
Gould now bristles at the notion that she and FCNL were part of Ben Rhodes’ echo chamber.
FCNL’s work on the Iran deal, she wrote, “is guided by Quaker testimonies, not by any Administration or Administration official.” FCNL’s legislative priorities, she added “are set by our network of Quaker meetings, churches and organizations around the country — not by an alleged Beltway-based ‘echo chamber.’ Any allegation otherwise is false.”
Gould’s involvement in promoting the Iran deal is recounted in a 2014 interview, published by Ploughshares — one of the “outside groups” that Rhodes indicated was part of his echo chamber. In the interview, Gould boasted of FCNL’s media campaign that included the publication of more than “130 pro-diplomacy letters to the editor in almost every state in the country.”
These letters, she said, “helped serve as a tool to demonstrate pro-diplomacy constituent support in our meetings and those of our colleagues.”
In the Ploughshares interview, dated July 14, 2014, Gould describes the deal with Iran in much the same way that Rhodes described it in the Samuels piece — as a way of “resolving US-Iran tensions” and as a “gateway for comprehensive negotiations to help de-escalate the violence in Syria and Iraq.”
To make the case for diplomacy with Iran in the Ploughshares interview, Gould invoked the benefits of negotiating with the Assad regime, touting the “successful deal that eliminated Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal,” which she said demonstrates that “diplomacy is essential to making the world a safer place.”
There’s a glitch to the #diplomacyworks hashtag messaging that FCNL helped promote, however. In 2015, Human Rights Watch reported that the Syrian government used chemical weapons against its opponents numerous times after it promised to give up its arsenal. And earlier this year, the Syrian-American Medical Society (SAMS) reported that 77 percent of the 161 documented chemical attacks that took place during the first five years of the Syrian civil war “occurred after the passage of United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2118 in September 2013, which created a framework for the destruction of Syria’s declared chemical weapons stockpiles.”
When challenged on her assessment on the efficacy of diplomacy in stopping the use of chemical weapons in Syria, Gould wrote that she was “making the point that the Syria CW [chemical weapons] agreement was a model for how diplomacy can succeed when it is fully implemented, but not that the Syria CW agreement would itself lead to a political settlement that would stop the killing.” The Syria CW model demonstrates, Gould wrote, “that when there is political will, there is a political way, and it is one of the greatest tragedy of our times that the international community has not prioritized a settlement to end the killing of Syrians as it did to disarm Syria of its chemical weapons stockpile.”
Gould also states that any suggestion that FCNL was part of Rhodes’ effort to run tests on pro-Iran deal messaging is misleading.
“The only ‘tests’ we discussed with Ben Rhodes and other government officials relating to the Iran deal,” she wrote, “were the very real ways in which frequent congressional attempts to undermine the Iran deal were repeatedly testing the strength of pro-diplomacy constituencies, and how important it was to keep up the momentum since we knew the big moment would be after the final agreement was announced.” Such momentum was necessary in the face of the opponents of the deal, who Gould reports “were trying to sabotage the talks with new sanctions or saber-rattling measures.”
Test for the Echo Chamber
Despite Gould’s assertion that FCNL was not part of an orchestrated campaign to manipulate media coverage and public opinion over the Iran deal, it’s pretty clear that the organization used — and encouraged others to use — language very similar to what came out of Rhodes’ echo chamber.
For example, in early 2014, FCNL encouraged a total of 62 religious organizations — including the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Global Ministries of the United Church of Christ and Disciples of Christ, J Street, Jewish Voice for Peace, and the Muslim Public Affairs Council to sign a letter in opposition to Senate Bill 1881, which required that sanctions be re-imposed on Iran should it violate the terms of the Iran deal. Passage of the bill would kill the Iran deal, the letter stated and “set us on a path to war.”
Here, we see one of the main talking points that came out of Ben Rhodes’ echo chamber — that there was a binary, dichotomous choice between the deal and war with Iran. “Framing the deal as a choice between peace and war was Rhodes’s go-to move — and proved to be a winning argument,” Samuels reported in his article.
In March 2015, Gould used the “deal or war” rhetoric that appeared in the January 2014 FCNL letter in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. The article reported that Gould said that US diplomats “have delivered us from the brink of war to where we are today,” and that “faith communities are making sure that Congress does not sabotage this landmark opportunity’”
Another point of similarity between Gould’s and Rhodes’ messaging regards the June 2013 election of Hassan Rouhani as President of Iran. Both Gould and Rhodes portrayed this election as a sign of growing moderation in Iran. Writing in the Huffington Post with co-author Michael Shank from NYU, Gould states that Rouhani’s election was “a sign from the Iranian people that they want a change” and that America could capitalize on Rouhani’s election by easing trade restrictions on Iran.
Again, this was a major message coming out of Ben Rhodes’ echo chamber.
“In the narrative that Rhodes shaped, the ‘story’ of the Iran deal began in 2013, when a ‘moderate’ faction inside the Iranian regime led by Hassan Rouhani beat regime ‘hard-liners’ in an election and then began to pursue a policy of ‘openness,’ which included a newfound willingness to negotiate the dismantling of its illicit nuclear-weapons program,” Samuels wrote.
Last summer, FCNL circulated another letter promoting the Iran Deal. This letter was not as polemical as some of the other materials that came out of FCNL, but was still something that Ben Rhodes would have loved. “This agreement helps de-escalate tension in a region that is already suffering the effects of war and violence in ways unimaginable to most of us in the United States,” the letter states. “It is also a testament to the effectiveness of diplomacy to take countries from the brink of war and resolve concerns peacefully.”
Sadly, it appears that diplomacy did not achieve the hoped-for result in Iran, which recently launched some missiles in an attempt to frighten Israel. Iran’s saber-rattling continues.
National Council of Churches Also Involved
To be fair, Gould and FCNL were not the only religious institutions that promoted the Iran deal using the Rhodesian talking points. Last summer, the National Council of churches co-hosted a conference call that showcased Marie Harf, senior advisor for strategic communications at the US State Department. Speaking on the call, (which was set up by FCNL), Harf used the same arguments that Rhodes did.
For example, she said that opponents of the Iran deal were “advocating for conflict, or all-out war or bombing to resolve this conflict.”
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
Harf also promoted the notion that opponents of the deal were arguing in bad faith. “There are a lot of misperceptions out there,” she complained during the conference call. “Our opponents have a lot of money and a lot of egregious falsehoods that they’re putting out there, and it’s hard for us to do it all alone.”
For her part, Gould is disappointed that Samuels’ piece “misses by far and away the single most important reason why supporters of the deal did so—because it’s a deal that peacefully keeps Iran from the bomb, and imposes the most rigorous nuclear inspection regime ever negotiated in history.”
Ben Rhodes couldn’t have said it any better.
But then again, he didn’t have to.