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Home/Daniel Larison/Down the Rabbit Hole with Samuels

Down the Rabbit Hole with Samuels

State Department photo

There is not much more that needs to be said about the original Samuels/Rhodes kerfuffle, but Samuels’ attempt to defend himself merits a few more comments. Samuels disputes that he is the vocal opponent of the nuclear deal he has been made out to be, and complains that his words have been misinterpreted. He writes:

Here’s what I said at the opening of the panel — which hasn’t been tweeted or written about by anyone yet, so far as I can tell, even though it’s the very first thing I say in the video:

“Unlike many of you, I’m a writer. I’m a journalist. I’m not involved in partisan politics. I’ve generally considered myself to be a liberal Democrat. These principles [of bipartisanship and consensus] historically are noncontroversial ones. They’ve been embraced by every American administration since World War II. To find them being undone in this very rapid way, given the potential consequences of unchecked nuclear proliferation — not just in the region but also in Asia — is and should be a terrifying thing for Americans to contemplate, whatever their feelings about this president or Republicans or Democrats. As someone who has reported in and around questions related to nuclear programs and gray market economies, I am startled by the lack of attention and clarity that is obvious in the way these stories are being reported.”

Samuels evidently missed that this quote was one of the ones cited here by Erik Wemple, who wondered why the White House was dealing with Samuels in light of his fairly obvious hostility to the nuclear deal. Later in the same panel, Samuels said this:

A president who came into office talking about a nuclear-free planet is going to be responsible for the greatest surge of nuclear proliferation that we’ve seen in a half a century or more.

That’s very bad analysis of what the consequences of the deal are likely to be, and it is exactly the sort of baseless claim that determined opponents of the deal made for years before, during, and after the negotiation of the JCPOA. It is what opponents of the deal have said so that they can claim to be defending the cause of nonproliferation while vehemently rejecting a major nonproliferation agreement. Instead of reckoning with the implications of his past statements, Samuels announces that he now supports the deal with reservations:

On balance, I suppose I do. It’s a complicated agreement and I’m not an expert (I’m a journalist), but after talking to people who are experts — including Leon Panetta, who told me that he supports the deal with reservations — I imagine it’s probably a good-enough idea that I should have some reservations about, too.. I will wait and watch and see what happens, just like everyone else.

I’m sorry, but this is a lame dodge. Earlier in the same piece, he says that “the prospect of dismantling nonproliferation safeguards and standards that have kept tens or hundreds of millions of people safe since Hiroshima and Nagasaki is terrifying,” but he doesn’t seem to grasp that this dismantling isn’t what the deal with Iran does. It doesn’t dismantle nonproliferation safeguards and standards. It secures and upholds them. That’s why so many arms control experts support the deal, and why the “zero-enrichment” position that Samuels is still endorsing makes no sense. There would have been no deal–and therefore effectively no restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program–if the U.S. and its allies had insisted on the standard Samuels wants. The cause of nonproliferation would have been set back considerably. If Samuels is terrified by a breakdown in the nonproliferation regime, he should be very pleased with the deal. One might think that he shouldn’t be writing a profile that falsely claims that the administration misled the public about its intention to negotiate such an agreement with Iran.

The main problem with Samuels’ defense is that he never addresses the major flaws in the profile. He accused the administration in no uncertain terms of “actively misleading” the public about negotiations with Iran, but it didn’t. It was well-known for years before that the administration was interested in pursuing such negotiations, and the administration acknowledged during the debate over the deal that it had been making contact before the formal talks began in 2013. It’s true that they didn’t announce secret back-channel talks to the world when they were going on, because they were secret back-channel talks, but that amounts to accusing them of not being incompetent. There was no attempt to mislead. Then Samuels uses that false claim to make an even more provocative, baseless charge:

By eliminating the fuss about Iran’s nuclear program, the administration hoped to eliminate a source of structural tension between the two countries, which would create the space for America to disentangle itself from its established system of alliances with countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Israel and Turkey. With one bold move, the administration would effectively begin the process of a large-scale disengagement from the Middle East.

As Suzanne Maloney noted in her recent criticism, “the premise that Obama harbors a “secret plan” to jettison America’s deep security partnership with Israel and the Gulf states constitutes pure conjecture, not fact.” Once again, this is the same evidence-free argument that Iran hawks have been using for years.

Samuels touches on why he mentioned two journalists by name, but doesn’t acknowledge that his misrepresentation of their work was an unfair slight on the quality and independence of their reporting. He certainly doesn’t try to make amends, and says this:

My own reading of both Rozen and Goldberg for years had suggested to me that this was a fair thing to say about their work. It seemed at least worth mentioning the names of some journalists in a 9,500-word article about a writer who tells stories to the public, using journalists as one of his instruments. If I didn’t name any of those journalists, readers might fairly conclude that Rhodes was in fact terrible at his job — or that journalists, especially those who live in Washington, belong to a special category of person who must never be criticized, even gently.

The kindest thing that can be said about this is that Samuels needs to work on his reading. It would be fair to criticize any journalist working on the nuclear deal or any other issue if the criticism were remotely accurate, but in this case it wasn’t even close to that.

Samuels says he stands by his story, and that means that he stands by what many observers have concluded to be fiction.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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