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.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).