The case of Roger Cohen

Roger Cohen is the prominent former European reporter for the New York Times, now a Times columnist. He is the author of serious books including Hearts Grown Brutal: Sagas of Sarajevo.

I saw Cohen speak about the book at the old Hungry Mind Bookstore in St. Paul shortly after it was published in 1998. At the time Cohen was an an ardent advocate of the Clinton doctrine promoting American military intervention for humanitarian purposes. He liberally disparaged the American reluctance to use force in support of a worthy cause such as the overthrow of Milošević.

In his New York Times Magazine profile of Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Cohen showed himself still to be carrying the torch for Bill Clinton, but also full to the brim with malice toward Israel. When Cohen quoted “a Druze Knesset member” commenting that Livni “has nothing Clintonian about her,” it was to be taken as a criticism of her. In Cohen’s world, George Bush’s “with-us-or-against-us school in Washington” was the obstacle to perpetual peace between Israel and the Palestinian tribes including Hamas. Saeb Erekat said so.

Cohen’s malice could be discerned, for example, in his description of the West Bank as providing “a primer on colonialism” and in his description of Israel as “compromised by a 40-year occupation, its kibbutznik uniqueness compromised by a globalized commercial culture[.]” The article is full of such loathing, even self-loathing. But you have to crawl all the way to the penultimate paragraph of Cohen’s long cover story to find this:

I strolled through Rabin Square, which has all the beauty of Warsaw at the height of Communism. In one corner is a small shrine to Rabin at the spot where he was murdered on Nov. 4, 1995. An inscription says that here Yitzhak Rabin was murdered “in the struggle for peace.” Another says, “Peace shall be his legacy.”

Alongside these words is a photograph, seemingly from a faraway era, of Rabin shaking Arafat’s hand beneath the sunny gaze of President Bill Clinton. I found myself fighting back tears: how much had been lost since then and how close Israelis and Palestinians had come. A peace of the brave it was; it is brave to see beyond grievance, hurt and history to the innocence in every child’s eye.

In Roger Cohen’s world, Yasser Arafat was a true partner in “the peace of the brave” represented by the Oslo accords. It is a bit difficult to follow Cohen’s train of thought through the tears he sheds. Apparently only the murder of Rabin intruded to prevent the peace that was in the making at his death and apparently only the coming of another Rabin is what is called for now that Israel faces heightened existential threats partly created by Oslo itself. In addition to demonstrating the usual Times malice toward Israel, Cohen’s article showed Cohen himself to be an utter fool.

Most recently, Cohen has displayed his foolishness in a series of columns on Iran, beginning with “What Iran’s Jews say.” Cohen followed up with “Iran, Jews and Germany,” “Iran, Jews and pragmatism” and “From Tehran to Tel Aviv.”

Ronald Radosh reviewed Cohen’s columns and the response to them in “Memo to the New York Times: Fire Roger Cohen!” This week he returned to the subject in “Roger Cohen’s continuing nonsense.”

In his “Iran, Jews and pragmatism” column, Cohen holds himself out as providing “a cautionary warning against the misguided view of Iran as nothing but a society of mad mullah terrorists bent on nukes.” He has sought to examine the “distinctive characteristics of Persian society.” Cohen calls for us to see Iran in full.

In his column on the good fortune of Iran’s Jews, Cohen omitted any mention of the fact that he was accompanied by a translator during his interviews of Iranian Jews. Rabbi David Wolpe reports that when Cohen appeared for a forum in Los Angeles (video here), Cohen was told over and over again by the Iranian Jewish refugees with whom he met that the Iranian Jews he spoke to in Iran were well aware that their words were monitored.

Indeed, Rabbi Wolpe reports, Cohen’s own translator told him in no uncertain terms that he (the translator) would file a report of all his movements after he left. Cohen discussed the government-provided translator before his Los Angeles audience toward the end of the forum. Well, Cohen’s Los Angeles interlocutors asked rhetorically, “might that intimidate the interviewees just a wee bit?”

In his series of Iran columns, Cohen begs to differ with Bernard Lewis regarding the epochal clash between “Islamic theocracy and liberal democracy” whose outcome will be decisive. “I don’t see any victor in this fight,” Cohen writes. “Rather, a variety of compromises between the two forces will emerge, as in Iran.” No problem!

Cohen finds the use of force against the Iranian regime “unthinkable.” This contrasts markedly with his view of the use of force against MiloÅ¡ević in the Balkans not so long ago. Rabbi Wolpe pressed Cohen a bit on the apparent divergence between his views then and now at the Los Angeles forum. Now Cohen announces: “Life’s about nuance, it’s not black and white.” He sees himself as introducing the indispensable shades of gray.

“I don’t think I’m naive,” Cohen told his Los Angeles audience. On the contrary, he views himself as a sophisticated cosmopolitan. The case of Roger Cohen presents a tangled mix of psychology and ideology combined with journalistic pretense that cannot easily be explained but that should not be ignored. In his most recent column, Cohen crows that “Obama has now taken all the steps I called for” vis a vis Iran. Whether or not this is entirely accurate, Cohen’s thinking is not simply idiosyncratic. He signifies something important beyond himself.


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