National Security & Defense

Junior Obama NSC Staffers Lied About the Iran Deal and Are Running U.S. Foreign Policy

(Kevin Lemarque/Reuters)

‘So the Obama administration lied about the nuclear deal with Iran. We knew that already.”

That’s the message several conservative friends e-mailed me in response to David Samuels’s New York Times article on May 5 profiling Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes.

Although Samuels’s article confirms what many Iran experts have said about the Obama administration’s nuclear deal with Iran, his profile of Rhodes is important because it explains the unprecedented incompetence, deceitfulness, and extreme partisanship of Obama’s National Security Council (NSC), and it further reveals that the president has allowed his NSC staff to run his foreign policy.

I have three main observations about the Rhodes profile.


The NSC Was Engaged in Systematic Lying to Ram Through the Iran Nuclear Deal

I have long argued that just about everything the Obama administration has said about the nuclear talks with Iran and the nuclear agreement have been exaggerations or outright falsehoods. Rhodes confirmed one of the most important of these deceptions.

Related: The Dangerous Fantasy behind Obama’s Iran Deal

According to Samuels, the Obama administration was “actively misleading” Americans by claiming that the nuclear deal came about because of the rise in 2013 of a moderate faction in Iran, with the election of Iranian president Hassan Rouhani. Samuels says this claim was “largely manufactured” by Rhodes to sell the nuclear deal to the American people even though the “most meaningful part of the negotiations with Iran had begun in mid-2012.”

Rhodes confirmed what most experts have long known: Rouhani did not represent the rise of a new moderate government in Iran. Supreme Leader Khamenei, a hard-liner, handpicked him to be on a slate of presidential candidates. Rouhani answers to Khamenei.

The White house’s story succeeded in distracting attention from the huge concessions it was offering to Tehran.

In November 2013, I wrote at National Review Online that the U.S. had made a major concession in May 2012 to allow Iran to continue to enrich uranium, and that this concession led to the November 2013 interim nuclear agreement with Iran. The White House made this concession before Rouhani won the July 2013 Iranian presidential election. Rhodes has now confirmed this. The Obama administration invented the moderate-Rouhani-faction story to create the illusion that it was taking advantage of a sudden opportunity to get a nuclear deal with a new moderate Iranian government. The White house’s story succeeded in distracting attention from the huge concessions it was offering to Tehran.

The Samuels article also contradicts recent accounts by aides to John Kerry and Hillary Clinton about what roles the two secretaries of state played in forging the Iran deal. In a September 2015 Politico article, Kerry and his aides attributed the deal to two years of intense U.S. diplomacy that included 69 trips across the Atlantic. In a May 2, 2016, New York Times article, journalist Mark Landler described former secretary of state Clinton’s reported leadership and caution on the nuclear talks with Iran; Landler contrasted this with a much more aggressive approach by Kerry while he was still in the Senate.

I didn’t believe either of these stories when they came out because the record indicates that Obama, from the day he became president, was determined to get a nuclear deal with Iran no matter what the cost. Samuels’s article only confirms this and indicates that efforts by Kerry and Clinton to get a nuclear deal were irrelevant — a deal was always in the cards.

The problem is that Iranian leaders knew what Obama wanted, which is why Iran’s nuclear program surged between 2009 and 2013: Tehran was working to establish as much nuclear capacity as possible before it struck a deal to freeze this program. This is why Iran had enough enriched uranium, according to President Obama, to make ten weapons by July 2015 — although it hadn’t had enough to make even one weapon in January 2009. The number of Iran’s uranium centrifuges used to enrich uranium also soared from about 5,000 in January 2009 to 19,000 in November 2013.


Rhodes and the NSC Manipulated Compliant Journalists and Experts to Sell the Iran Deal

Rhodes bragged to Samuels that he had manipulated the news media into publishing stories supporting the White House on the Iran talks. Rhodes made use of “legions of arms control experts [who] began popping up at think tanks and on social media” and became “sources for hundreds of clueless reporters.” According to Rhodes, this crop of newly minted experts cheerlead for the nuclear deal and, like ventriloquists’ dummies, “were saying things that validated what we had given them to say.”

I’m familiar with many of these newly minted, know-nothing nuclear experts frequently quoted by the press in support of the Iran deal. Many others, however, well understood how weak an Iran nuclear deal would be and were aware of the huge concessions the U.S. was offering. This includes people and organizations Rhodes singled out, such as liberal writer Laura Rozen, the Ploughshares Fund, and the Iran Project. In all likelihood, the reason these experts did not speak out against the administration is that they shared President Obama’s radical views on how to improve Iranian behavior and strengthen U.S.–Iran relations; in their view, allowing Iran to eventually go nuclear was worth the exchange.

Based on Iran’s ballistic-missile tests, continued sponsorship of terrorism, intervention in Syria and Yemen, and its recent threat to close the Strait of Hormuz to U.S. shipping, it’s clear this strategy has been a dismal failure.

Rhodes told Samuels he is proud of the way he sold the Iran deal. His tactics were effective, he boasted, and drove deal opponents crazy. I disagree. It’s true that the administration fooled many in the press, but a majority of Congress (including many Democrats) were not convinced by Rhodes’s deceptions and voted against the nuclear deal. Nor was the public fooled: When Congress moved to vote on resolutions of disapproval of the Iran agreement last September, polls showed the American people opposed the deal by a two-to-one margin and 64 percent believed President Obama and Secretary Kerry had misled the public about the agreement.

Articles, speeches, and rallies by conservative experts also helped counter the White House’s false narrative on the Iran nuclear agreement and provided Congress and the American people with an alternative, more accurate assessment.


Rhodes Is the Face of Obama’s Incompetent Foreign Policy

The unprecedented influence Rhodes and other NSC staffers have had over Obama’s foreign policy and their lack of discipline is well known. Robert Gates (who declined to be interviewed for the Samuels article) has criticized Obama for centralizing power in the White House to an unparalleled degree. Gates also has slammed junior NSC staffers for going outside the chain of command and directly contacting combat commanders.

Panetta, whom Samuels did interview, made similar comments about the Obama NSC staff, noting that they assume where the president will stand on issues, and they resist allowing senior officials to present their positions to him. Panetta, who was Obama’s head of the C.I.A. and secretary of defense, told Samuels:

There were staff people who put themselves in a position where they kind of assumed where the president’s head was on a particular issue, and they thought their job was not to go through this open process of having people present all these different options, but to try to force the process to where they thought the president wanted to be. . . . They’d say, “Well, this is where we want you to come out.” And I’d say, “[expletive], that’s not the way it works. We’ll present a plan, and then the president can make a decision.” I mean, Jesus Christ, it is the president of the United States, you’re making some big decisions here, he ought to be entitled to hear all of those viewpoints and not to be driven down a certain path.

This is an unprecedented departure from how U.S. foreign policy is supposed to be conducted. Rather than have Senate-confirmed cabinet secretaries make recommendations or decisions, Obama placed U.S. national security in the hands of junior political operatives in the NSC. This is why Representative Mac Thornberry (R., Texas), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, has proposed legislation to cut the size of the NSC staff, place the staff under congressional oversight, and require that the national-security adviser (the NSC head) be confirmed by the Senate.

Rather than have Senate-confirmed cabinet secretaries make recommendations or decisions, Obama placed U.S. national security in the hands of junior political operatives in the NSC.

Samuels wrote that Rhodes is, “according to the consensus of the two dozen current and former White House insiders I talked to, the single most influential voice shaping American foreign policy aside from POTUS himself.” He also notes that Rhodes’s “lack of conventional real-world experience of the kind that normally precedes responsibility for the fate of nations — like military or diplomatic service, or even a master’s degree in international relations, rather than creative writing — is still startling.”

I note that Rhodes, 39, holds degrees in political science, English, and creative writing.

Coming on the heels of a lengthy interview with President Obama that Jeffery Goldberg recently published in The Atlantic, in which the president blamed his foreign-policy failures on America’s closest allies and advised Saudi Arabia to learn to “share the neighborhood” with Iran, the Rhodes profile explains a lot. We now know that President Obama allowed this junior NSC staff member — so close to the president, he says, that “I don’t know anymore where I begin and Obama ends” — to run the national security of our nation and to conduct a deceptive campaign to ram through a dangerous and incoherent nuclear agreement with Iran. This is how this deal came about and why it is so unpopular with the American people and Congress.

President Obama’s weakness on foreign policy and his decision to rely on an NSC staffed with campaign aides and congressional aides go a long way toward explaining his long list of foreign-policy failures, especially in the Middle East. It also is why there have been calls for the president to fire Rhodes and others in the NSC and hire competent advisers.

After the collapse of Obama’s Syria policy in 2013, I wrote, “The president urgently needs to turn to more respected and less partisan Democratic national-security experts such as Joe Lieberman, Jane Harman, Bob Kerrey, Joe Nye, Lee Hamilton, and a few Republicans to exercise adult supervision over his dreadful foreign policy and craft a new strategy to restore American credibility.”

Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council of Foreign Relations and a former New York Times columnist, made a similar recommendation in January 2015 at the Daily Beast, when he said: “Mr. Obama will have to excuse most of his inner core, especially in the White House. He will have to replace them with strong and strategic people of proven foreign-policy experience.”

President Obama ignored this advice — perhaps because he much prefers to be surrounded by inexperienced advisers that make him look like, as Robert Gates has put it, “the smartest guy in the room.” This is how a sophomoric individual such as Ben Rhodes became the single most influential voice shaping American foreign policy aside from President Obama.

Obama will leave multiple serious international crises for his successor to deal with. To solve these crises and restore America’s global standing, it is vital that the next president abandon President Obama’s irresponsible style of managing U.S. foreign policy; the next president must hire competent advisers and trust the secretaries of State and Defense and other Senate-confirmed national-security officials to do their jobs. NSC staffers must return to coordinating policy and representing the president’s interests to policy agencies. They must not play the absurd role they have played in this administration — in which a 39-year-old aspiring novelist became a deputy president.

Fred Fleitz, president of the Center for Security Policy, served in 2018 as deputy assistant to the president and to the chief of staff of the National Security Council. He previously held national-security jobs with the CIA, the DIA, the Department of State, and the House Intelligence Committee staff. He is the editor of the 2020 book Defending against Biothreats.


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