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Roger Cohen’s Mea Culpas Fall Short

The indefatigable Roger Cohen has earned some high marks in recent weeks for his coverage of the anti-regime protests in the streets of Tehran. He even admitted that some of his previous reports failed to convey the reality of the ruling regime. But he is far from repentant.

In an online Q&A with fellow op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof, in which readers’ questions were posed to Cohen, he received a couple of sharp slaps across the wrist. But his responses were typically self-indulgent.

One reader posed the following question:

Nicholas Kristof mentions gnashing his teeth at your excellent recent reporting from Iran. I had long been gnashing my teeth at your many previous articles that sought to debunk U.S. opposition to this brutal regime that had long suppressed dissent with crackdowns and imprisonment. You then effortlessly ride the bandwagon of brave dissent with not so much as a look backward at your former positions that belittled U.S. opposition. Please comment.

— Daniel Saks

Cohen’s Response:

You are mistaken, Daniel, in saying that I have not looked back. I have written in two columns that I underestimated the brutality of the regime. I’ve not noticed any such mea culpas from my critics, however. They were wrong in underestimating the vibrancy and sophistication of Iranian society, in reducing the Iranian equation to a bunch of mad mullahs, and in dismissing this election as the meaningless foible of a clerical dictatorship. In my earlier columns, I tried to broaden the picture of Iran. … Iran was not, until these events, a subject over which there was any room for nuance. I tried to introduce some nuance, convey the society I saw. This was intolerable to some.

I think President Obama, as I wrote from Tehran, erred on the side of caution early on. He misspoke in equating Moussavi with Ahmadinejad in terms of US strategic interests. He should have been more forthright in standing with the Green Wave. Meddling be damned. This was a pivotal and historic moment. Obama should have tossed the strategy papers in the garbage and spoken from the heart. His comments got stronger and better, but they came as the street protests ebbed.

Cohen is right about Obama’s initial fecklessness and late response, but wrong about his critics.

Those who were appalled by Cohen’s dispatches from and about Iran earlier this year were not wrong to reduce everything to “mad mullahs.” As Cohen learned to his sorrow, the mullahs, their front man Ahmadinejad, and their hired guns, turned out to represent the only real power in the country. It wasn’t that we underestimated the vibrancy of Iranian culture, it was that Cohen was so seduced by the scent of incense in the bazaars and the seductive sight of uncovered hair peeking out underneath the scarves of the country’s oppressed women, that he persuaded himself that nothing else mattered.

Even more to the point, his real goal was not, as he claims, to introduce “nuance” into the discussion but to whitewash Iran, thus undermining efforts to halt the regime’s push for nuclear weapons. Indeed, as he made plain time and again, his agenda was to replace the merited demonization of a truly evil regime with a different story line, in which Israel and its supporters were falsely portrayed as manipulating American foreign policy. As I wrote in the May issue of COMMENTARY, in order to do this, the same regime he now condemns enlisted him to write articles portraying the small Jewish community of Iran as free and happy rather than as a terrorized remnant suffering from discrimination at the hands of a rabidly anti-Semitic government.

Cohen’s widely reviled columns about Iranian Jews and his attacks on Israel weren’t merely wrong-headed. They constituted disgraceful and patently dishonest pieces of reporting, which, as we said here months ago, prompted a comparison with Walter Duranty’s whitewash of Stalin’s atrocities in the same newspaper more than 70 years ago.

Roger Cohen’s critics have no reason to apologize. But despite some good work recently, the Times columnist still has much to atone for.