On this website, Michael Ledeen has given us his wise assessment of President Obama’s recent letter to Iran, as well as Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s response to it. It would have been nice had Obama drafted TNR assistant editor Jamie Kirchick to write his message, rather than write the one he actually did. Kirchick said what Obama failed to do. He spoke to the Iranian people and not to the regime. Indeed, Kirchick tells Iran that the mullahs are the ones to apologize to the United States, for its terrorism and its attempt to build a nuclear weapon with which they threaten to obliterate Israel. Kirchick also demands the immediate release of the many political prisoners held in jail from what he accurately calls a “criminal regime.”
There is one commentator, however, who is pleased with Obama’s letter. It is- you guessed- the inimitable Roger Cohen, who is so taken with himself that he evidently believes, as he puts it, that “Obama has now taken all the steps I called for.” In his column run on the New York Times website on March 22nd– but strangely absent from the op-ed pages in the paper’s print edition in the “Week In Review,”(which perhaps means that even that paper’s editors are tired of Cohen’s glowing view of the regime of the mullahs) Cohen likes Obama’s letter and reads into it things that others are not so sure Obama means.
First, Cohen says that Obama has “abandoned regime change as an American goal” and has “shelved the so-called military option.” As Ledeen notes, Obama has increased sanctions, and his spokesmen have many times emphasized nothing is off the table should Iran not make positive responses to the United States. But nevertheless, Cohen believes the Obama letter means a reversal of US policy towards Iran, one that is based on “mutual respect.”
Really, does Cohen actually believe we should show respect to a nation that suppresses homosexuals, practices hangings of dissenters and throws them into jails where they are tortured and have no rights? Does he welcome the growing repression of women and journalists and other actions of the regime in the last few months, that have not let up despite President Obama’s election? Is this something for which the United States should now ignore in the name of realism?
As for Iran’s foreign policy, it continues to pledge the extermination of Israel, and by all accounts, is nearer than ever to attaining the capability of building a nuclear weapon. The only difference is between the estimate of American and Israeli intelligence as to when this will be accomplished. Yet, if we take Cohen’s word, Iran is a regime motivated by “essential pragmatism” while Israel is a country that shows an increasing “bellicosity.” What would Cohen do if he was an Israeli, and listened endlessly to the promises of the mullahs to destroy their country? Does he not realize that both Hamas and Hezbollah are proxies of Iran, and that the wars Israel had to undertake were the cause of Iran’s very real bellicosity, not its pragmatism?
Indeed, Roger Cohen is way behind the moderate Arab states, which have continually given back channel communications to the United States that they hope something will be done to stop Iran. All he concentrates on is what he calls “American high-handedness.” As for those nations from Israel to Saudi Arabia that argue that Iran will not shift course, Cohen argues that Iran is in deep economic trouble (true) and wants both a stable Iraq and an Afghanistan without the Taliban. (also true) Therefore, the way out in his eyes is not to continue with sanctions and pressure, but rather, to break with Israel!
Any sensible policy maker would know there are both moral and strategic reasons for the United States to maintain its special relationship with Israel, the only complete democracy in the Middle East. They also know that rather than appease a nation like Iran when it is in economic trouble, they should increase sanctions and pressure- including the threat of military action if necessary- to show them reasons why they, and not us, need to change policy. As Ledeen noted, Obama smartly renewed existing financial sanctions a few days ago. (Evidently Obama didn’t read Roger Cohen closely enough.) Judging from Cohen’s column, what Obama should do to show he understands Khamenei’s pragmatism is to do what he asks- lift sanctions completely. After all, he tells us, “the mullahs are anything but mad.” Perhaps they aren’t. Doesn’t that suggest that one should pay some attention to their threats to Israel’s very existence? And yes, despite Cohen, the Hitler analogy holds. Wouldn’t the world have been better off had it taken Hitler’s words seriously before he acted on them? There were many, as we know, that argued at the time he was basically moderate and pragmatic, and that one should ignore his rhetoric. Sounds familiar, no?
The issue is not a phony US policy based on “Israel-can-do-no-wrong,” as Cohen thinks, but the need to respond to a regime run by religious fanatics that is posing a continued danger to both the Middle East and the world. Roger Cohen does not get it. Perhaps that is why The New York Times did not run his column in their print edition.
Addendum: Since writing the above, two columns from liberal bloggers have appeared praising Cohen’s column. One is by Richard Silverstein, who writes that Cohen shows “lucidity and pragmatism.” M.J.Rosenberg, writing in Josh Marshall’s popular Talking Points Memo website, calls Cohen a “fresh voice on these issues” and “fearless.” He also awards me great influence with The New York Times. Linking to my earlier blog that bore the headline “Fire Roger Cohen!” Rosenberg writes he guesses Cohen “will be fired.” Why? Because, he writes, my “neocon buddies usually get their man!”
I previously had explained that the headline was facetious. I believe in freedom of speech, and was only trying to draw attention to the argument I made in the column, that the paper and the liberal bloggers were acting according to a double standard. The Times fired William Kristol. I do not recall any objection on Rosenberg’s and other’s columns to the scores of people who publicly called for Kristol to be fired. Indeed, they cheered those readers on. And they expressed satisfaction when he was unceremoniously dumped. Of course, honoring the paper’s Upper West Side liberal base by getting rid of Kristol was an easy thing for them to do; they received only hosannas. But watch what happens if they follow by dumping Cohen. So, dear readers, we will see how much power I really have.