The recent “Green Wave” revolt in Iran upturned the lives of millions, from the citizens who championed its cause to the Ayatollah Khamenei himself. It also jolted many in United States and Europe—especially erstwhile advocates of engagement with Iran—by placing their hopes for diplomacy at odds with Iran’s democratic dissidents.
The effects of this unpleasant shock seemed especially evident in _New York Times_ foreign affairs columnist Roger Cohen this past month, where he spoke alongside noted Iran scholars Karim Sadjadpour and Haleh Esfandiari at the _New York Review of Books_ panel on Iran at the 92nd Street Y. Cohen, previously accused of penning apologia for the Iranian regime, now expressed the full degree of his disgust with the crackdown against supporters of Mir Hussein Mousavi. “So long as people are being clubbed on the streets, so long as hundreds, perhaps thousands of people have been thrown into jail just for what they think,” Cohen argued with characteristically vivid rhetoric, the U.S. faces a “moral imperative” to postpone engagement. “I don’t think it can be business as usual, absolutely not.”
Despite his indignation, however, Cohen claimed that he still believed in engagement. In his mind, the “moral imperative” of honoring “millions defrauded” in Iran requires that President Obama’s outreach “await a decent interval.” Yet what does a “decent interval” entail? 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?”
At the core of this swirling confusion of politics and morality, many conservatives contended, is a classic tale of “liberals mugged by reality”—naïve optimists rendered crestfallen by the revelation of the true nature of the Ayatollah’s rule. Indeed, the stark contrast between Cohen’s writing prior to the election and his commentary in its wake lends credence to this notion.
Cohen published a series of columns earlier this year that eagerly promoted engagement and scorned what he termed “Mad Mullah caricature of Iran” prevalent in the United States as “misleading and dangerous.” He even confidently predicted in March that the upcoming elections would be a “genuine contest as compared with the charades that pass for elections in many Arab states.”
Cohen’s op-eds earned him a collection of critics. _Commentary’s_ Jonathan Tobin labeled him a new-age Walter Duranty, the infamous _New York Times_ columnist who won a Pulitzer Prize for infamously republishing Soviet propaganda during the 1930s. _Atlantic Monthly_ writer Jeffrey Goldberg called Cohen “an apologist for an anti-Semitic regime.” It thus came as no surprise to see a host of conservative opinion writers gleefully roast Cohen’s reversals, such as when _Commentary”s_ Emanuele Ottolenghi posted a blistering before-and-after shot of Cohen’s writings regarding Iran. In their mind, reality had moved Cohen from inane optimism in March to admitting that he had “erred in underestimating the brutality and cynicism of a regime that understands the uses of ruthlessness” in June.
Left unanswered by the “liberals mugged by reality” theory, however, is Cohen’s unconvincing attempt to balance the “moral imperative” of bolstering Iranian protesters with his uninterrupted commitment to engagement. By no means did Cohen belatedly ally himself with President Bush’s foreign policy toward Iran; indeed, he insisted at the panel that Bush’s “radical White House” provided a useful foil to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to rally Iranians against a common enemy. Only Barack Obama, a “black American president of partly Muslim descent reaching out to the Islamic world had placed the Iranian regime on the defensive.”
Yet even as he maintained that Obama’s “realpolitik” strategy greatly contributed to the birth of the Green Wave, Cohen bluntly attacked the President’s hesitation to stand forthrightly with the revolt in its early efforts. “Meddling be damned,” Cohen declared two days after the election while urging Obama to “toss strategy papers in the garbage” and recognize the magnitude of the moment. But by chiding the White House for its tepid response to the revolt, Cohen hypocritically rebuked it for carrying out the logical conclusion of the detente that he himself so heartily applauded—no matter what, do not interfere.
It appears that Cohen’s case is not one of a “liberal mugged by reality,” but one of inherently conflicting aspirations for the direction of U.S. foreign policy. Two competing fantasies dance across his post-June 12th writing on Iran. One continues to be enthralled by Obama’s “heady, history-making” wish for rapprochement—comparable, Cohen argues, “to the China breakthrough of 1972.” The other marvels at the “limitless potential” of the three million Iranians who gathered to protest the election results, and glorifies the dissident movement.
The conflict between these two inclinations—both in Cohen’s mind, and in the Obama Administration’s policy—is unlikely to resolve itself soon. But it does reveal that Cohen, along with others, remain hesitant to embrace Obama’s “game of realpolitik” fully. Neoconservatives in particular, those much-maligned allies of President Bush, vociferously denounced Obama’s weak response to the revolt. In perfect summation of the neoconservative position, _Wall Street Journal_ columnist Bret Stephens published an op-ed entitled “Do Dissidents Matter” this past week, in which he contended that the “best U.S. foreign policy” is the one that backs dissidents unconditionally. In his criticism of Obama, Cohen opens the door to a near-heretical notion: that in demanding rapid and unflinching American support for the Green Wave, Stephens and the neoconservatives may have been (at least partially) _right_.
Undoubtedly, the nuance required to balance engagement with democracy promotion is incredibly difficult to strike. Obama may fear that by encouraging dissidents, he will unwittingly repeat what he perceives as Bush’s failures. To the President’s eyes, perhaps, Iran’s recent unrest only further demonstrates the ability of engagement to ignite change.
Yet ignition is not enough. Engagement can provide a spark, but perhaps only the decidedly anti-realist, American “moral imperative” can preserve the flame. For the sake of U.S. foreign policy in the coming years, let us hope that President Obama can deftly weave these two impulses into something more tangible than fantasy.
Iran: A Conversation About the Elections, Protest and the Future at the 92nd Street Y
Jordan Hirsch is an intern at Guernica.