Why Everything You Think You Know
About Foreign Policy is Wrong
By Lee Smith
May 1, 2017
reported that in 2016 the Obama administration freed seven
Iranian-born prisoners against the advice of the Department of Justice, which
considered them threats to American national security. Obama also forced the DOJ
to drop charges against another 14 Iranians involved in criminal activities
associated with nuclear proliferation, weapons smuggling, etc.
Why? How else
was President Barack Obama going to celebrate a historic nuclear deal with a
country that had kidnapped Americans, including Washington Post
reporter Jason Rezaian. Pay us or we’ll embarrass you. Pay us, or we might
walk out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.
administration shipped $400 million in cash to the same Islamic Revolutionary
Guard Corps that put Rezaian and others in jail and freed Iranian agents
involved in illegal nuclear-related activities, to preserve the arms agreement
that was supposed to stop Iran from engaging in such activities, in order to
save a nuclear deal that all but guarantees that Iran will acquire the bomb.
A few months
after Obama left the White House, people are starting to realize there was some
strange stuff happening the last few years on Pennsylvania Avenue. The things
that seemed to make sense last year—like exchanging Iranian crooks and spies
for ordinary American citizens—now look ridiculous. And it’s clear why the
deliberate urgency with which the administration messaged its Iran policy had
the feel of an advertising campaign—because it was an advertising campaign,
crafted to convince consumers that something you think is bad for you is
actually good for you.
something that superficial, the Obama White House needed help from a generation
of blogging young guns who were effectively parasitic on the professional
reporters who remained in the D.C. press corps. These were the Explainers.
Smart, well-read, and glibly cynical in the fashion of recent liberal-arts
college graduates, the Explainers had no experience or training in basic
journalistic arts, like reporting or interviewing.
Because there was no one around to teach this cadre its trade, their role models
weren’t war correspondents like John Burns and C.J. Chivers, or dedicated
diggers and investigators
like David Sanger and Jay Solomon. Nor were they columnists like William Safire,
who had high-level experience and dozens or hundreds of high-level sources
inside the federal government.
Explainers competed for the angle—who could frame a subject in the most
vitally counterintuitive way that would leave their buddies on Twitter
speechless. X reports from the capital of Y that this is happening, and here’s
what that really means, bro.
that long ago, of course, when reporters used to recoil from the idea of
rewriting press releases faxed to them by some PR shop, even—or
especially—if it was centered in the White House. That’s partly because they
were cynical bastards who distrusted authority—also, they resented the PR
guys, who were getting paid a lot more than they were. Except now, what
reporters and editors who were still around from the old days saw in front of
them was a catastrophe
that no one could have imagined even five years earlier. Newspapers
were closing around the country, and even those papers that managed to survive
couldn’t afford the kinds of departments that are central to a free
press—like investigative teams, and national and foreign bureaus.
generation of opiners gladly stepped into the cost-cutting breach. Their model
was Malcolm Gladwell, a hugely talented and even more hugely successful writer
New Yorker who became famous by finding the angle on all other
angles: Everything you think you know about the world is wrong.
There are no
winners in war, only losers. The most arduous nuclear inspection regime in
history involves letting Iran inspect its own nuclear sites. Funding a state at
war won’t fill its war chest. Restraining the clerical regime in Iran means
relieving sanctions to make billions of dollars. Rewarding a state sponsor of
terror for its activities makes that state less likely to sponsor terror.
Deterrence doesn’t work.
The logic at
work in some of the more popular arguments made by Obama aides and their
validators in the press wasn’t dialectical or paradoxical; e.g., if you want
peace, prepare for war. It was Gladwellian—what’s really true is the
opposite of whatever you think is true. Of course, that’s not journalism,
it’s just marketing, or, in contemporary journalism-speak, Voxsplaining, after
the popular liberal website Vox, which devoted itself in its entirety to
counter-intuitive self-branded “hot takes” designed
to showcase the wisdom of whatever the current Obama administration
To anyone who
had read their Malcolm Gladwell, this was all deeply familiar. In Gladwell’s
of marketing, you had the “connectors,” who knew lots of people,
and the “mavens,” who knew important things. Most important of all were the
“persuaders,” or super-charismatic figures, at the top of the heap. All of
which explains why Mad Men was one of the big cultural events of the
Obama years: It’s a story about an inner circle of somewhat-hip mavens and
connectors working for a visionary king of cool to shape the beliefs of millions
“echo chamber” was another such story, with the “mavens” (policymakers
and experts) and “connectors” (journalists) busily selling the Iran deal for
their own king of cool in the White House. Those who wanted to be convinced were
pretty easy to convince: Obama had Israel’s back and would never grant a
nuclear weapon to a regime that threatens the existence of the Jewish state.
Filters make cigarettes better for you! Others were a harder sell, and so the
message had to be turned against them: If you don’t support a deal that frees
up billions for a regime that threatens war, then you’re a warmonger.
It was no
accident so much of the language and even imagery the Obama team used to sell
the deal spun off anti-Semitic tropes. It was supposed to be scary. All of
advertising is a threat, where the trick is simply in how you veil it—you
don’t fit in but you want to, so buy our product. Malcolm Gladwell and Vance
Packard would have been proud.
Today, the ad
campaign is over, but the mavens and connectors are still dug in like those
Japanese marines hiding in caves a decade after the end of WWII. There’s Obama
NSC staffer Ned Price, a former CIA officer who as an echo chamber-ist
manipulated U.S. public opinion, now complaining
about the Trump team’s lack of transparency. Max Fisher, who rose from Vox to The
New York Times, asserts that there’s no
such thing as deterrence. You may think military action in one part
of the world will deter adversaries elsewhere, but that’s wrong. What history
teaches us—from the Greeks to the present—is bunk. So who are you going to
believe—Max Fisher or your lying eyes?
So why does
the inverted wisdom of the echo chamber now strike readers as transparently
mendacious and silly? Because policymaking is not quite the same as advertising
and PR. The Obama administration sold the Iran deal not because of its
copywriting talents and facility in framing and manipulating “connectors”
and “mavens” but because it controlled the White House. The president of the
United States is the single most powerful person in the world. Almost everything
he decides to push against, especially in the area of foreign policy, is an open
that the Obama echo chamber used to sell the Iran Deal sound weird now because
Obama is no longer in the White House. So what does it mean that “everybody
knows” that the deal to rid Bashar al-Assad of his chemical weapons didn’t
actually rid him of his chemical weapons, which he uses with regularity to
murder civilians, including patients in hospitals? That’s not a paradox,
it’s not a Gladwellism, and there is nothing clever about it. What the slogan
means now is that they lied, and made America complicit in Assad’s war crimes.
It’s no surprise that admission doesn’t sound clever, and that it makes
The press is
responding slowly to the fact that the echo chamber has been unplugged. Major
media outlets have confessed they were in bed with executive power the last
eight years. Or, as The New York Times gingerly put it, the paper has decided
itself to reporting. After all, as the Washington Post’s new motto has it, “Democracy Dies
What do the
new press slogans mean in practice? The fact that the “Trump is Putin’s
prison wife” narrative still hasn’t been put to rest after the
administration bombed Russian assets in Syria probably tells you all you need to
know. No one wants to kill the golden goose, especially when the news for the
news industry has been unrelievedly awful for more than a decade now. The media
sees Trump, or more particularly anti-Trump, as a godsend, so they’re
competing to be the must-read of the anti-Trump resistance. And ratings have indeed
picked up at CNN and other
news channels, while the Times
and other papers report
a surge in digital subscriptions.
numbers always pick up after elections, especially when they go against the
candidates typically chosen by people whose self-image is proudly reflected by
the magazines and newspapers cluttering their coffee tables or iPads. Or, as
some staffers used to say at the Nation, what’s bad for the country is good for the Nation.
The question is, how long will the good times last? And what happens when the
bottom falls out this time? Or to put it in terms the anti-Trump resistance will
soon have to come to grips with, how long before Americans start normalizing
fascism? After all, it’s awfully hard to resist 24 hours a day, for months and
years on end. There are groceries to shop for, children to send off to school,
laundry to wash, vacations to plan, and that new cool restaurant down the block.
widely-held fantasy on the left that President Donald Trump was going to be
impeached by his own party six or 10 weeks after taking office was a mass temper
tantrum by a group of people who believed in the awesome power of their own
tweets. And why not? After all, if your bright explanations were a reason why
Obama succeeded in pushing his agenda, then why shouldn’t you still be making
U.S. foreign policy? Aren’t we in charge of this stuff?
The answer, of
course, is that the Explainers were never in charge of anything. They were
simply a cost-effective megaphone for the most powerful man in the world. Now
that Obama is no longer in power, what remains is their own massive sense of
entitlement and the mess that they have helped to make of the American press.