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Roger (Cohen) and Me, Revisited

It appears that my August 5-14 column about Roger Cohen has upset a few people, which is usually one of the perks of the job. But some of those who are upset with me are people I care about, and with them in mind I’d like to expand on my thoughts a bit, by way of explaining what I meant.

The column was originally meant to be a discussion of Cohen’s New York Times Magazine article from August 2, in which he attempted to explore the mechanics of American policy-making towards Iran. One of the framing elements of the piece was the role of Dennis Ross. I thought Cohen misfired badly in ways that seemed to me instructive, and even though I usually try to avoid personal attack pieces, I wanted to take apart that argument. However, as I re-read his Times columns since January, I found what struck me as a pattern of weak thinking, which seemed to shed light on the misjudgment I had found in the magazine piece. I started to flesh that out, and by the time I was done I didn’t have much room for the Dennis Ross argument and it was deadline time, so I rushed in a few more paragraphs and then I went with what I had, as they say. Now I see my original intention got lost.

So here is the original point: I don’t believe Dennis Ross is the problem in American Middle East policy. Just like I didn’t think Douglas Feith or Elliott Abrams were the problem with same in the Bush administration. Presidents (or, in rare cases, vice presidents) create their own teams, and they generally know perfectly well whom they are hiring. Certainly Obama knew what he was getting in Dennis Ross. He’s been an open book for years.

This is not to defend Ross’s views or his role in policy-making or execution. Certainly one can legitimately argue that Ross has had a negative role. Aaron Miller has pointed out ways in which he felt Ross’s role was negative. He was there and he has examples of things Ross did and said. I have a few stories of my own. The difference is that Miller’s claim is based on what Ross did, not who he is.

Cohen didn’t offer much information on Ross’s policy actions, and the examples he gave are rather mixed in what they prove. The bulk of Cohen’s argument consisted of repeatedly questioning Ross’s ability to work effectively in the region because of the “recurrent issue” of whether, having “embraced the Jewish faith,” he is “too close to the American Jewish community and Israel to be an honest broker.” Because of his “obsession” with Israel, which has recently “merged in a perilous countdown” with his newer “obsession” with Iran. Because of his “well-known ties with the American Jewish community and the sometimes hawkish views on Iran” (though Cohen parenthetically acknowledges at one point that Ross has also held dovish views and “argued at other times for unconditional engagement”— albeit “backed by the threat of draconian sanctions”).

Now, the case has been amply made in various venues that Ross’s views are more hawkish than Miller’s. That wasn’t a secret when they worked together. But the gap can’t have been intolerably wide. After all, the two worked together, along with Daniel Kurtzer, as a close-knit team, under Ross’s leadership, for a full 14 years, from 1986 to 2000, under three presidents. Likud prime ministers reviled all three as self-hating Jews, Arabists, “Baker’s Jewboys.” Labor prime ministers were happier with them, though even then there were some harsh exchanges, notably when Israeli interests clashed with American interests. And Arab governments considered them and the American government credible enough to work with as honest brokers.

All that fell apart when George Bush was elected president. Like his predecessors, he also appointed Middle East advisers who were “close to the American Jewish community and Israel.” But these individuals were well-liked by Likud leaders and reviled by Arab leaders. The difference? A different president who had different beliefs and hired a different set of advisers with more compatible views to execute them. Clinton, Bush senior and even Reagan worked with greater or lesser energy toward Israeli-Palestinian compromise. George W. didn’t. He — or as we now understand, Cheney and his coterie — viewed compromise as weakness. That should have been simple enough to figure out just from reading the newspapers. But no. These days it’s enough to cite signs of ethnic or religious engagement, on either side, to create an air of suspicion on the other side.

It didn’t used to be that way. It used to be that the dividing line was between those who work toward Israeli-Palestinian compromise, which we might call the Labor-Fatah position, and those who believe Israel must inevitably push toward maximum boundaries and hence that the only question is whether or not Israel should exist, which is a view shared among religious fundamentalists of all three monotheistic faiths.

In the madness of the post-9/11 Bush years, things got so polarized that the pro-compromise position became marginalized in many parts of the culture, and the question was no longer Israel-Palestine compromise versus no-compromise but Israel legitimate versus Palestine legitimate. In this atmosphere, those who speak ill of Palestinians (or even of their defenders) are identified — by the newly dominant voices on both sides — as “pro-Israel,” and those who speak ill of Israel or its defenders are identified, again on both sides, as pro-Palestinian. Just about anybody who argues publicly that Israel is legitimate becomes part of “the Lobby,” and just about anybody who argues for Palestinian rights becomes an “Islamofascist.” It’s a simplistic, reductionist and increasingly a dangerous discourse.

I write a lot that is critical of Israel and the Jewish community, largely because they’re my family and I worry about them. So a lot of people on both sides see me as friendly toward the Palestinian side. On August 5 I wrote something critical — well, not even of the Palestinian side, but of someone who is seen lately as a champion of the Palestinian side — and suddenly I’m on the other side.

In fact, if there is a policy side I’m on, it’s the side that’s become invisible. Which brings me back to my recent post about Amos Kenan and his “A Letter to All Good People.” So it goes.

A final thought: None of this should be taken to indicate a change in my feelings of warmth and friendship toward anyone on either side, including those who responded to this column and those who didn’t. I just wanted to explain where I was coming from.

Jim Hightower used to say that there’s “nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos.” Great line, but then, he never lived in the Middle East.

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