Roger Cohen Digs Himself Deeper

Good Fences

By J.J. Goldberg

Published August 05, 2009, issue of August 14, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Pity poor Roger Cohen. The freshman New York Times columnist has stumbled into a mess of trouble of late, and he doesn’t quite seem to know what’s hit him. And the more he tries to climb out of the hole he’s dug, the deeper he digs himself in.

Cohen’s woes started last January, when he joined the rotation of Times Op-Ed page columnists after toiling for years in humbler posts. Apparently eager to start off with a bang, he flew to Iran, a newsworthy hot spot. In a series of contrarian columns, he pooh-poohed the mullahs’ genocidal rants as a pose, masking sober pragmatism. Iran is a “flawed” but “vibrant” democracy, he wrote on February 2. Most Iranians are young, keener on cell phones than revolution. Surely the regime knows it can’t thwart its own people. The argument was not original, but it was reported live from the field and had a feel of immediacy.

Cohen probably thought his next move was canny and original, but it would end up backfiring. Evidently seeking a fresh angle, he decided to explore Iran’s 25,000-member Jewish community as a bellwether of Iranian democracy. He also decided to use his own Jewishness as a badge of credibility. His February 23 column described the happy life of Iranian Jewry, “living, working and worshiping in relative tranquility.” He found several local Jews fearless enough to state, openly and on the record, that Iran treats them just fine.

“Perhaps I have a bias toward facts over words,” he modestly wrote, “but I say the reality of Iranian civility toward Jews tells us more about Iran — its sophistication and culture — than all the inflammatory rhetoric.” Then again, he conceded, perhaps he thought that way “because I’m a Jew and have seldom been treated with such consistent warmth as in Iran.” And who could question the judgment of a landsman?

The answer: Many people could question it. Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League charged in a letter to the Times that the columnist viewed Iran through “dangerous rose-colored lenses.” Jeffrey Goldberg blogged at The Atlantic Online that Cohen was “particularly credulous.” Jason Maoz of The Jewish Press called him a “dupe of Tehran.” Private e-mails and phone messages were far less polite.

Cohen told me at the time that he was surprised and distressed at the hostile response. He shouldn’t have been. Yes, the endurance of Iranian Jewry should be teaching us something important. But that something has to do with the nature of Shiite Islam and Persian culture. It certainly doesn’t prove the benign intentions of the ayatollahs. Neither does Cohen’s gracious reception in Iran. To think otherwise is simply naïve, and dangerously so.

Does this mean Cohen has a chip on his shoulder? More likely, he’s just in over his head. A Times staffer since 1990, in 2004 he started writing opinion columns for the Times-owned International Herald Tribune, but made little splash. Critics said he was stuck in conventional wisdom. He supported invading Iraq, criticized the war’s conduct but opposed Obama’s withdrawal plans. He worried about the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. Slate media critic Jack Shafer wrote in 2007 that Cohen’s work “establishes new standards for the aggressive pursuit of the trite” and “dares the reader to wade through a mush of platitudes.”

Jumping full-time into the polemical maelstrom of the Op-Ed page last January, Cohen must have decided, or been urged, to sharpen his edge and swim against the current. The trouble was, he wasn’t good at it. He was credulous when he should have been skeptical and skeptical when he should have been trusting. He responded peevishly to his critics. Column after column restated the ease of Iranian Jews and the pragmatism of the mullahs.

On March 2 he mocked Israeli fears of Iran’s nuclear efforts, saying the work had been underway for 30 years, was nowhere near completion and was more likely to produce “a Persian Chernobyl” than a nuclear war. Talk to them, he said. They’re not so bad. Also, restrain Israeli war-mongering. By April 8, a nuclear Iran had somehow become inexorable, though still “a couple of years” away. Suddenly, the “only way to stop Iran going nuclear” was to “get to the negotiating table. There’s time.” Meanwhile, “rein in” Israel.

Just four days later, Cohen announced after interviewing U.N. nuclear chief Mohamed ElBaradei that it was “almost certainly too late to stop Iran from achieving virtual nuclear power status.” Now it was really time to start talking and recognize Iran’s nuclear status. Also, “get tougher on Israel.”

All that is nothing, however, compared to his irrepressible faith in Iranian democracy. “The June presidential election,” he wrote March 1, “…will be a genuine contest as compared with the charades that pass for elections in many Arab states.” He restated that theme in various ways throughout the spring. Then came the June 10 election. Now he remembered that the regime was brutal. He did admit June 14 that he’d been wrong on a few points. Since then he’s been berating President Obama for not speaking out firmly enough against the mullahs. The only theme he’s flogged more frequently is restraining Israel.

And yet, in August he managed to outdo himself. In a 5,000-word article in the August 2 Sunday Times Magazine, he unraveled the tangled lines of authority in Obama’s Iran policy-making. The loose thread, he strongly suggested, was veteran diplomat Dennis Ross, an “ultimate Washington survivor,” who started at the Obama State Department, left in a “fiasco” and moved in a “bizarre odyssey” to the National Security Council.

Ross’s role in the administration raises many questions in Cohen’s mind, but the one that comes up over and over throughout the article, “a recurrent issue with Ross, who embraced his Jewish faith after being raised in a non-religious home by a Jewish mother and a Catholic stepfather, has been whether he is too close to the American Jewish community and Israel to be an honest broker with Iran or Arabs.” In the crisis atmosphere following the Iranian election, “Can this baggage-encumbered veteran… overcome ingrained habits and sympathies?” Indeed, “Will the Iranians be prepared to meet with Ross?” — a “reasonable question given Ross’s well-known ties with the American Jewish community.”

That, in effect, is the dilemma facing American policy toward Iran at this pivotal moment: Is there too much Jewish influence? We’ve heard the question before in Hamas sermons, in Al Qaeda videos and on some left-wing blogs. Now it’s been incorporated into the nation’s newspaper of record.

Is Cohen trying to mainstream bigotry? I suspect not. I think he’s trying to sound provocative, and I think he’s in over his head.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • What do you think?
  • "To everyone who is reading this article and saying, “Yes, but… Hamas,” I would ask you to just stop with the “buts.” Take a single moment and allow yourself to feel this tremendous loss. Lay down your arms and grieve for the children of Gaza."
  • Professor Dan Markel, 41 years old, was found shot and killed in his Tallahassee home on Friday. Jay Michaelson can't explain the death, just grieve for it.
  • Employees complained that the food they received to end the daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan was not enough (no non-kosher food is allowed in the plant). The next day, they were dismissed.
  • Why are peace activists getting beat up in Tel Aviv? http://jd.fo/s4YsG
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.