As America gets ready to elect a new president, it’s worth remembering that there is a difference between making decisions and selling them to the public. Which is why it matters that a fight has broken out in Washington over the role of Barack Obama’s top national security communications aide, Ben Rhodes.
A recent article offered the ambitious thesis that Rhodes has become “the single most influential voice shaping American foreign policy aside from [Obama] himself.” For those who have covered the Obama White House that assertion is ambiguous: Is Rhodes supposedly making important decisions or just shaping how they are sold?
There is no doubt that Rhodes is a key player when it comes to presenting Obama’s foreign and national security policies to the public, especially the controversial 2015 nuclear deal with Iran: he is Obama’s top speechwriter and communications strategist on all foreign and national security matters. The media-versus-White-House scuffle that has followed the article’s publication is largely about whether Rhodes duped reporters and the public in selling that deal, and whether the news media were sufficiently skeptical of their sources as they wrote about it.
That’s not a small thing. The 2003 Iraq War was a disastrous policy decision that might have been stopped before it was implemented had it not been successfully sold to credulous reporters on false premises: Iraq war advocates like Vice President Dick Cheney, for example, pushed government funding for pro-war partisans like Ahmed Chalabi who in turn helped feed false stories of Saddam Hussein’s non-existent nuclear and biological programs to reporters. Rhodes’ spin on the Iran deal was fairly standard White House fare, by comparison. Iran deal critics, including Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, accuse Rhodes of overstating the moderate beliefs of some Iranian leaders and exaggerating the deal’s ability to keep Tehran from getting a nuclear weapon. On Monday Rhodes published a defense of his efforts on the website Medium.
But amid the scramble to protect reputations and credibility, the difference between spin-doctoring and decision making is being obscured. Obama made crucial decisions on Iran from the start of his presidency: whether to send a secret letter to the Iranian leaders; when and whether to expose Iran’s violation of U.N. Resolutions; how to counter threats of Israeli military action against Iran; whether to engage in secret negotiations with Iran starting in 2012; and, of course, whether to accept the terms of the deal once negotiators from the State Department hammered it out.
Senior figures in the Obama administration like Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, Leon Panetta and Robert Gates took conflicting positions on some of these and other policies, and there were occasionally contentious debates about the right way to proceed. And that is how it should be. The National Security Council is a decision-making machine: in a properly functioning NSC, policy proposals move through a series of meetings in search of consensus, from experts through deputy agency heads, to cabinet officials. If those top advisers can’t find a common position themselves, the President himself holds a meeting to air the debate. After that, the President may consult in small group with some of his closest advisers before making a decision.
How well that process works matters. Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld famously manipulated George W. Bush’s NSC, leaving the President poorly informed about the stakes of his decisions. Obama has dramatically expanded the size and power of the NSC, but he has also relied on an inner circle of advisers including his chiefs of staff, Biden, Clinton, Gates and others when coming to a final decision on important matters like drone strikes, detaining terrorists, fighting the war in Afghanistan and whether to use military force in Syria.
Where was Rhodes in that process? To be sure, he has been one of Obama’s closest aides from the start, the primary author of his foreign policy speeches, a daily presence in foreign policy discussions and a lead author of consensus positions as they emerged from the inter-agency process. When key players, including Iran deal negotiators, cabinet secretaries and others, wanted to get information to or from Obama, Rhodes increasingly became the go-to person over the course of Obama’s two terms in office. Early in the administration Rhodes was sometimes part of the small group that made final decisions on policies, and nowadays he often is, according to senior officials who have participated in the meetings.
But for all that, there is little evidence in the record that Rhodes has directly tipped the president’s decision making one way or the other on major policy debates. Indeed, despite declaring him the most influential voice shaping foreign policy in the administration after Obama, the recent profile only shows Rhodes swinging into action once it is time to sell the policy.
And even then it is unclear how much Rhodes affected the implementation of policy. On Iran, for example, key votes in Congress could have stopped the nuclear deal last summer. Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee played a crucial role in the public debate over the deal, as did other Congressional and public figures. But it remains unclear who, exactly, was swayed by Rhodes’ efforts: not even those accusing him of tricking the country into approving the deal seem able to answer that question.
These are not frivolous matters. Hundreds of thousands of lives hang on decisions made at the top of government and holding officials accountable is important under any circumstance. With the media under fire and a contentious presidential campaign heating up, it is even more important right now. Obscuring the difference between decision-making and after-the-fact spin just opens the door further for demagoguery.