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Roger Cohen’s wishful thinking

If Roger Cohen’s reporting is anything like his assessment of President Obama’s Nowruz message to Iran, we were right to be suspicious of his journalism from Iran.

On Sunday, The New York Times columnist again used a column about Iran to swipe at Israel — this, several days after an appearance at an L.A. synagogue to debate his assumptions about Jews in Iran. This time, Cohen didn’t even bother to give any teeth or justification for his call for Obama to "cool" down U.S.-Israeli relations ("It’s about time," Cohen wrote, without explaining why). 

Where Cohen went completely off the rails was in his analysis of Obama’s message to Iran. Was he reading the same message the rest of us did? (Check out this three-minute video and judge for yourself). Cohen wrote:

With his bold message to Iran’s leaders, President Obama achieved four things essential to any rapprochement.

He abandoned regime change as an American goal. He shelved the so-called military option. He buried a carrot-and-sticks approach viewed with contempt by Iranians as fit only for donkeys. And he placed Iran’s nuclear program within “the full range of issues before us.”

By doing so, Obama made it almost inevitable that one of the defining strategic issues of his presidency will be a painful but necessary redefinition of America’s relations with Israel as differences over Iran sharpen.

On those five points, Cohen gets three of them wrong, and another one misses the point.

1. Here’s the one he got right: Yes, the president arguably implied that the United States has abandoned the goal of regime change when he said, "The United States wants the Islamic Republic of Iran to take its rightful place in the community of nations." Of course, if Washington were still pursuing regime change in Tehran, this hardly would be the first time rhetoric and reality diverged in U.S. foreign policy. But, at least publicly, this is an important signal to Iran that the United States is ready for rapprochement.

2. Cohen writes that Obama shelved the military option. Wrong. Obama neither said nor suggested anything of the kind (here’s the text of Obama’s remarks). Obama did say diplomacy is not advanced by threats, and that his administration seeks constructive ties grounded in mutual respect, but that hardly constitutes taking the military option off the table.

3. Obama did not bury the carrot-and-sticks approach. On the contrary, this message is the carrot. The sanctions Obama backs constitute the stick. Obama reiterated the carrot-and-sticks approach as recently as a week and a half ago, when he extended U.S. sanctions against Iran.

4. Cohen writes that Obama placed Iran’s nuclear program within a full range of issues between the two countries. Okay — so what? Obama did not mention Iran’s nuclear program in his message; it is the elephant in the room. It lurks behind not only the president’s message, but the U.S. focus on Iran. Obama’s no fool. He knows that he ought to try to get the most he can out of diplomatic outreach to Iran, even as he presses hard on other fronts, like sanctions (I like to call this the carrot-and-sticks approach). Any other approach would be irresponsible.

5. Cohen writes that one of the defining strategic issues of Obama’s presidency will be "a painful but necessary redefinition of America’s relations with Israel." Huh? Obama has suggested nothing of the kind. What this really seems to be is wishful thinking on the part of Cohen, who clearly has it in for Israel.

What does Obama’s Nowruz message have to do with the Jewish state?

Slap the headline "From Tehran to Tel Aviv" on top of the column, lop in Israel with Saudi Arabia ("any Iran breakthrough will shake up current cozy U.S. relationships from Jerusalem to Riyadh," Cohen writes) and throw in an Israel-bashing line at the close ("this much is clear to me: Obama’s new Middle Eastern diplomacy and engagement will involve reining in Israeli bellicosity and a probable cooling of U.S.-Israeli relations. It’s about time. America’s Israel-can-do-no-wrong policy has been disastrous, not least for Israel’s long-term security.") and there you have it.

Cohen’s interpretation of Obama’s message takes many liberties. If his reporting is only half as sloppy, The New York Times and its readership should beware.

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