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The Contradictions of Roger Cohen

Two important pieces track the incredible tergiversations of Roger Cohen. Jordan Hirsch points to the contradictions implicit in the New York Times columnist’s heartfelt expressions of support for Iran’s democratic dissidents and his ever shifting calls for “engagement” with the regime that is murdering them.

Is diplomacy with the Ayatollah only ethically repugnant for, say, the next six months? Will we, by then, have conveniently forgotten about the Green Wave? Will it no longer be too distasteful to resume “business as usual”?

There are further discrepancies. Cohen derides George W. Bush’s “radical White House” and praises Barack Obama for “plac[ing] the Iranian regime on the defensive.” Yet it is Obama—and not Bush—who was so slow to issue any positive expression of support for the people on the streets of Tehran and who nonetheless held out the olive branch of “engagement” irrespective of how many dissidents the Iranian regime imprisons, tortures, or kills (entreaties, by the way, that have been abjectly dismissed by Iran’s leaders). Meanwhile, two days after the election devolved into mass protests and violent repression, Cohen said that outreach should “await a decent interval.” Two weeks later he declared, “Meddling be damned.”

Hirsch writes that Cohen possesses two “inherently conflicting aspirations for the direction of U.S. foreign policy.” One is “enthralled by Obama’s ‘heady, history-making’ wish for rapprochement,” an echo of Cohen’s apologias for the regime issued for months on end prior to the brutal crackdowns, while the other “marvels at the ‘limitless potential’ of the three million Iranians who gathered to protest the election results, and glorifies the dissident movement.” Cohen writes as if these contradictory analyses of the regime’s nature were in perfect harmony.

What accounts for the persistence of such hypocrisy? In a devastating piece for the Forward, J.J. Goldberg chalks it up to the worst of journalistic impulses: cynical attention-seeking. A columnist for the past five years, Cohen was regularly spouting “conventional wisdom.” Slate’s Jack Shafer observed that Cohen’s writing “establishes new standards for the aggressive pursuit of the trite” and “dares the reader to wade through a mush of platitudes.” So why not push the envelope and write ridiculous things about the hospitality of the ayatollahs toward Iran’s 25,000 Jews and how the image of a radical, Islamist regime is but a dangerous fiction concocted by a cabal of actual fanatics, that is, American neoconservatives?

Cohen’s spate of columns spinning these yarns have earned him a great deal of attention, but he has also made a fool of himself. Repeatedly. For instance, he simultaneously called predictions of Iranian nuclear capability fear-mongering—more likely to produce a “Persian Chernobyl”—while advising that it is “almost certainly too late to stop Iran from achieving virtual nuclear power status” and that the West should reconcile itself to that anodyne fact. Moreover, the real problem in the region was Israel, whose belligerence needed to be “rein[ed] in.”

The height (or, more accurately, the depth) of Cohen’s quest for provocation was witnessed last week in a 5,000-word piece for the Times Magazine, where he expressed concern over National Security Council staffer Dennis Ross’s “well-known ties with the American Jewish community.” Never mind that these “well-known ties” do not seem to bother President Obama, who, after all, wanted to bring Ross closer to the action of Iran policy. Goldberg asks:

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.

Cohen was indeed “mugged by reality”—Hirsch’s description of the Times writer’s Iranian odyssey. Finding oneself among the participants of a real-life counterrevolution in the streets of Tehran will change the attitude of everyone but the most coldhearted of “realists.” Yet at the same time, Cohen remains obsessed with exposing nefarious influence in the American government, which is the true impediment to a detente with the Iranians—a detente which, depending on the day, Cohen finds impossible to achieve.

Cohen has received many plaudits over the past two months, not just from those who found his earlier work about Iran naive, but also, ironically, from the very same people who were nodding their heads at his earlier assessments of neoconservative perfidy and Iranian reasonableness. F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that “the test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” There exists a distinction between acknowledging the nuances of an issue—the meaning of Fitzgerald’s aphorism—and espousing utterly contradictory opinions. It is a testament to the intellectual muddiness of our times that so many people cannot recognize the difference.


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