Whoever said that truth always wins out hasn’t spent much time in Washington. In this town of majestic monuments and post-adolescent ambition-addicts, where the campaign never ends and only impotence is considered unseemly, truth is a butterfly in a mist of acid rain. It’s hard to catch, harder still to save.
Successful leaders have always been adept at deception, of course. To say politicians are liars is to state a truism and to ignore the unpleasant fact that sometimes one must deceive in order to achieve.
But in the last couple of years, something seems different, especially relating to the Obama administration’s signature policy initiative of its second term: The nuclear deal with Iran.
Two recent devastating profiles—one of President Barack Obama by Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic and the other of Obama’s communications chief Ben Rhodes by David Samuels in The New York Times Magazine—have revealed a kaleidoscope of mendacity so sophisticated, creative, consuming, and substantively boundless as to give rise to a sense that something essential has changed in the relationship between truth and falsehood, between the actual policies of an administration and its efforts to sell them.
At a deep level, spin displaced policy. Not only were key promises in the deal’s favor knowingly fabricated for the purpose of persuasion; not only were the scope and ambitions of the deal, the timeline of when talks began, the internal dynamics of the regime in Iran, and the priorities driving the American side during each stage willfully distorted; not only were journalists and experts whose entire reputations should have been at stake enlisted in the government’s sorcery; not only were official records doctored; but the process of decision-making within the administration appears to have been short-circuited as well.
Members of the cabinet had little if any input. Indeed, in some cases their presence was entirely intended to misdirect the public’s understanding of the worldview behind the policy. Implementation of the president’s intentions was delegated, instead, to a staffer with the portentous title of Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications.
The “deal” with Iran that was concluded in July 2015 was not even exactly a deal. The document, called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, was never actually signed, even as the administration continued to insist that the deal was “not based on trust.” The version approved by the Iranian parliament, and the provisions described by Iran’s leaders, were different from those submitted to Congress and the American people. We were assured that Congress would be given a say, but the nature of the say included a truncated process, suppression of side deals, and a vote in which two-thirds of members were required to override a veto and stop the implementation, which is very different from the two-thirds of the Senate required to approve treaties.
To top it all off, in key parts of the document—where the administration’s long-promised “snap-back sanctions” purportedly appeared—the text actually included the Iranians’ express rejection of the concept, declaring that the entire deal would be off if sanctions were restored. Meaning “snap-back sanctions” were never agreed to. Meaning a central plank of the agreement wasn’t really part of the deal at all.
Taken together, this amounted to a grand deception, a Big Lie of astonishing proportions and complexity aimed at deceiving the public about both the intentions and dynamics of the foremost foreign policy initiative of the Obama presidency.
And yet, all the focus on the Big Lie that has emerged since the publication of these two essays risks obscuring something arguably more important: the decision to make the deal in the first place. What we ended up with, we have only now begun to understand, amounts to a massive shift in thinking about America’s role in the world, the ultimate aim of which was hidden from public view, as was the core philosophy that motivated it.
This too was kept secret, though nothing about the Iran deal makes sense without it.
To read the rest of this essay in The Tower, click here.