May 9 Follow @dandrezner

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and a regular contributor to PostEverything.

While Spoiler Alerts was trying to enjoy a long weekend, the rest of the foreign policy community was all abuzz over David Samuels’s New York Times Magazine cover story on deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes. The profile offered up lots of juicy details, including Rhodes’s love for Don DeLillo, his intellectual affinity for President Obama and his abject disdain for every foreign policy analyst residing in Washington.

Since the article went online late last week, scorching hot take after scorching hot take has appeared: See Eli Lake, Max Boot and Tom Ricks for withering takedowns of Rhodes, and Daniel Nexon, Nexon again and The Washington Post’s Carlos Lozada for withering takedowns of Samuels. Indeed, the kerfuffle created by the article was big enough to force Rhodes onto Medium in an attempt to clarify some things.

I debated the Rhodes piece with Heather Hurlburt over at Bloggingheads. Reflecting upon the story and the takes on it, I’ve come to three definitive conclusions:

1) Ben Rhodes has been at his current job way too long. Here are some direct quotes from Rhodes that make their way into Samuels’s essay:

Don DeLillo is “the only person I can think of who has confronted these questions of, you know, the individual who finds himself negotiating both vast currents of history and a very specific kind of power dynamics. That’s his milieu. And that’s what it’s like to work in the U.S. foreign-policy apparatus in 2016.”

“All these newspapers used to have foreign bureaus, Now they don’t. They call us to explain to them what’s happening in Moscow and Cairo. Most of the outlets are reporting on world events from Washington. The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.”

“In the absence of rational discourse, we are going to discourse the [expletive] out of this. 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.”

Pretentious? Check. Arrogant? Check. Burned out? Check, check, check.

That Rhodes said this stuff to a reporter is not shocking at all, because he has been muttering stuff like this on the record to reporters for a while. Last fall, for example, he told the New York Times’s Robert Draper, “The discourse in Washington just becomes like a self-licking ice cream cone of maximalist foreign policy.” Rhodes’s comments to Jeffrey Goldberg in the latter’s long Obama story are similarly dripping with condescension toward the foreign policy establishment.

Rhodes has been at his position for more than seven years. He has a lot of political battle scars to show for it. But there’s a reason that people usually only hold jobs like Rhodes’s for just a few years before they move on: They are absolute killers of the soul. The longer Rhodes has been in the West Wing, the more contemptuous he has sounded about everyone not in the West Wing.

Clearly, Rhodes and more hawkish foreign policy types won’t see eye to eye. But I’ve talked to a few less-than-hawkish types over the weekend who are pretty infuriated by the fact that Rhodes sounds so sure that he has gotten foreign policy right. At a minimum, anyone with a hand in running American foreign policy while the Russian “reset” collapsed, the Arab spring curdled, and Syria, Libya and Yemen disintegrated might consider whether such self-certainty is truly deserved.

I get Rhodes’s frustration, but there’s a point where contempt for others seeps into how one does the job, and I’d wager that Rhodes hit that point, oh, around 2013. For the sake of his well-being, I hope he leaves the White House before 2017.

2) Samuels is pitching a really strange thesis. Samuels actually wrote this sentence: “It has been rare to find Ben Rhodes’s name in news stories about the large events of the past seven years, unless you are looking for the quotation from an unnamed senior official in Paragraph 9.”

This makes me wonder whether Samuels has read anything by anyone about Obama’s foreign policy over the past seven years. Even over just the past year, Rhodes has appeared rather frequently in The Washington Post. As someone who reads a fair amount about American foreign policy, I’ve become pretty confident that when there’s a big foreign policy story, someone will quote Rhodes at some point.

So that was a small, weird sentence by Samuels, but one that raises questions about his thesis:

Rhodes is a storyteller who uses a writer’s tools to advance an agenda that is packaged as politics but is often quite personal. He is adept at constructing overarching plotlines with heroes and villains, their conflicts and motivations supported by flurries of carefully chosen adjectives, quotations and leaks from named and unnamed senior officials. He is the master shaper and retailer of Obama’s foreign-policy narratives, at a time when the killer wave of social media has washed away the sand castles of the traditional press. His ability to navigate and shape this new environment makes him a more effective and powerful extension of the president’s will than any number of policy advisers or diplomats or spies.

If Rhodes is the president’s master national security storyteller, then he’s pretty bad at his job. The American people quite like the current president, but they sure as hell do not like his foreign policy. I can hazard a guess as to why. The point is that Samuels’s overarching argument — that Rhodes is some narrative puppetmaster dominating the foreign policy narrative through social media — is a total crock. To wit …

3) The debate about the Iran nuclear deal did not play out in the way that Rhodes or his critics claim. The most controversial part of Samuels’s story covered the Obama administration’s war room, which prevented Congress from rejecting the Iran deal. According to Samuels, Rhodes’s social media game was so strong that the White House successfully parried the rhetorical assaults against the deal.

As someone who was conscious in the summer of 2015, I remember this playing out very, very differently. Opponents of the Iran deal massively outspent and out-advertised proponents. Furthermore, contra Samuels, this blitz had an effect; in polling, the Pew Research Center found that there was an appreciable increase in opposition to the deal over the summer. But Pew also found something else: despite the blizzard of advertising and media coverage surrounding the Iran deal, respondents stated that they knew less about the contours of the deal two months after the debate started. Why? Because the issue “had not resonated widely with the public.

I’ll leave it to partisans to debate whether Rhodes and the White House shaded the truth more than opponents of the Iran deal. I’m trying to make a different point: None of it mattered. The opponents of the Iran deal spent enormous sums of money to agitate against the deal, but the issue never caught on with the American people. This allowed the White House to secure the loyalty of most Democrats. In other words, Rhodes’s efforts had little effect on the debate.

It’s almost as if, regardless of what anyone thinks, neither Rhodes nor his critics control the foreign policy narrative.