Navigate to News section

Why Everything You Think You Know About Foreign Policy Is Wrong

How Gladwellian Internet ‘hot takes’ fueled the new echo-chamber press that enabled Obama’s foreign policy—and still rules Washington

Lee Smith
May 01, 2017
Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
US President Barack Obama lowers his head in prayer during the National Prayer Breakfast on February 4,2016 in Washington, DC.Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
US President Barack Obama lowers his head in prayer during the National Prayer Breakfast on February 4,2016 in Washington, DC.Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Politico recently 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.

So the 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.

To sell 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.

No, the 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.

It wasn’t 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.

The new generation of opiners gladly stepped into the cost-cutting breach. Their model was Malcolm Gladwell, a hugely talented and even more hugely successful writer for The 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. 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 policy was.

To anyone who had read their Malcolm Gladwell, this was all deeply familiar. In Gladwell’s new-age sociology 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 of Americans.

Obama’s “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 door.

The slogans 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 people angry.

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 to “rededicate” itself to reporting. After all, as the Washington Post’s new motto has it, “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”

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.

But media 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.

The 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.


Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.