By Daniel Luban
Roger Cohen, columnist for the International Herald Tribune and New York Times, has a new piece in The New York Review of Books on the ongoing crisis in Iran. Like his previous writings on the subject over the last six weeks, it is essential reading — sharply analytical but at the same time deeply emotional, seething with barely concealed anger.
Its conclusions will be familiar to those who have read Cohen’s columns during the post-election crisis that began on June 12: Iran’s election was in all likelihood stolen, even if there was no decisive smoking gun. In the wake of the regime’s repression of demonstrators, large numbers of Iranians “have moved from reluctant acquiescence to a system over which they believed they had some limited, quadrennial influence into outright opposition to a regime they now view with undiluted contempt.” But now the Obama administration finds itself in a bind. Engagement with Tehran threatens to legitimize the Khamenei/Ahmadinejad regime in its moment of weakness; on the other hand, the strategy of confrontation and military force — which American and Israeli hawks have opportunistically used the crisis to push — is even more certain to solidify the regime’s hold on power. Thus, the imperative for the moment is to stand back and let the regime twist in the wind.
The NYRB piece caps what has been a remarkable seven months for Cohen. At the beginning of 2009, he was a generally well-regarded but seemingly standard-issue liberal hawk, superficially indistinguishable in worldview from any number of similar pundits at the Times or Post or New Republic. By the time of the Iranian elections in June, he had become something else — liberal hawkery’s most prominent apostate, the most eloquent critic of the Gaza war and proponent of engagement with Iran, and, as Philip Weiss suggests, the most important Jewish journalist in America (though Cohen himself is British-born).
To call him America’s most important Jewish journalist is not to say that there are no Jewish journalists who are more influential or widely read (fellow Times columnists Paul Krugman and David Brooks come to mind on this score), but rather that there are none who are currently more important on the central issues of Jewish identity and Jewish power — which, at the present moment, means the crucial triangle of America, Israel, and Iran. If the Bush years were defined by neoconservatives like William Kristol and Charles Krauthammer on the one hand, and liberal hawks like Thomas Friedman and Jeffrey Goldberg on the other — the bipartisan coalition that brought us the Iraq war — it is Cohen who seems to have his finger on the zeitgeist at the beginning of the Obama presidency. It is therefore worth examining his journey.
I have never met Cohen and can claim no firsthand knowledge of his thinking, but by all indications it was the Gaza war that set him on this path. In mid-January, when most supposedly “pro-peace” liberal pundits were offering mealy-mouthed equivocations about the war — or, in Friedman’s case, justifying it as the “education of Hamas” — Cohen was one of the few to follow his gut and say that the slaughter was wrong, full stop. “I have never previously felt so despondent about Israel, so shamed by its actions,” he wrote in a powerful NYRB essay. The piece provoked an attack from American Jewish Committee head David Harris, Cohen’s first scuffle with the forces of institutionalized hawkishness in the Jewish community.
The clash did not come to a head, however, until Cohen visited Iran and wrote a series of articles seeking to move beyond what he called the “axis-of-evil myopia” blinding American perceptions of the country. Two columns in particular, which dealt with the uneasy but not unbearable lives of Iran’s Jewish community, came in for special criticism. Critics such as Jeffrey Goldberg — perhaps the liberal hawk Jewish journalist par excellence — charged that Cohen was sugar-coating the predicament of Iranian Jews. (I wrote about the Goldberg-Cohen feud at greater length here.) But as Cohen pointed out, the real source of the hawks’ anger was that the very existence of an Iranian Jewish community shatters the “vision of an apocalyptic regime — with no sense of its limitations — so frenziedly anti-Semitic that it would accept inevitable nuclear annihilation if it could destroy Israel first.”
Subsequent columns made the case for a richer and more complex Iran than the demonized would-be nuclear power prevalent in media coverage, and argued that far from being a suicidally bloodthirsty, the Iranian regime was essentially pragmatic and open to compromise. Cohen cautioned against the potentially disastrous consequences of an Israeli nuclear strike and warned of the necessity of an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement.
But just as Cohen had acquired a reputation as a champion of realpolitik and accomodation with Tehran, the election crisis came and he wrote a series of essential street-level accounts of the protests (two of the best are here and here) brimming with anger and scorn for the regime. He soon called on Obama to take a firmer rhetorical stand on the protesters’ side, and declared that engagement must wait. Superficially, at least, the realist had turned idealist.
Was this a renunciation of his previous stance? Cohen’s critics were certainly eager to say that it was: having naively failed to grasp the essential evil of the Iranian regime, the neoconservatives and their allies charged, Cohen was only now coming around to the same conclusions about it that they had held all along.
But it seems to me that on a deeper level Cohen’s outrage at the election and its aftermath sprang from the same roots as his earlier calls for engagement. In both cases the driving force was a desire to move beyond the simplistic caricatures of Iranian society, born out of deep sympathy and interest in the lives of its people under the Islamic Republic. For the hawks, Iran is generally seen through the Israeli lens, exclusively as an “existential threat”. It is a “messianic apocalyptic cult,” as Netanyahu told Goldberg, or Amalek, the biblical adversary whom the Israelites were ordered to slaughter down to the last “man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.” At a marginally greater level of sophistication, we get the clean neoconservative division between a hated totalitarian Islamic Republic and an oppressed freedom-loving people yearning for American liberation.
Both before and after the election crisis, Cohen’s work on Iran has been characterized by a willingness to listen to Iranians on their own terms. It was this that let him avoid the neoconservative fallacy of dividing the Iranian people into secular pro-American revolutionaries or bloodthirsty Jew-hating fanatics, and instead see the ambivalent attitudes of most of the populace. It was this that let him see that the Islamic Republic was not a simple totalitarian state, but rather a complex (albeit largely autocratic) entity that commanded some degree of allegiance from most of its people. And it was this that ultimately let him understand and empathize with the protesters’ anger in a way that the hawks could not. For those who had always believed that the Islamic Republic was unmitigated evil, after all, there could be nothing particularly surprising about the events of June 2009. By appreciating the hopes and loyalty that Iranians attached to the Islamic Republic, Cohen was able to appreciate the betrayal they felt at its repressive turn, and by appreciating the limited but significant degree of freedom allowed under the regime, he was able to appreciate the rage when this was taken away.
It is, I suspect, because Cohen’s anger at the repression is genuine, because it springs first and foremost from sympathy with the Iranian people rather than paranoia about the Iranian threat, that he has not defected back to the hawks in the aftermath of the election crisis. He recognizes that the path leading from sanctions to military force will succeed only in killing innocent Iranians while snuffing out any hopes of reform, and recognizes equally that this price is not worth paying in the pursuit of an Israeli security advantage that at best will be short-lived and more likely will actually backfire. In the wake of Gaza and Iran, at a time when the liberal Jewish punditocracy as a whole has offered strikingly little original thinking about foreign affairs, he has emerged as perhaps the most important Jewish voice to watch going forward.
[Cross-posted at The Faster Times.]