Wednesday, May 27, 2009

New York Time's Cohen shifts into the next gear

Somebody at the New York Times has decided, for some reason, to give voice to full-fledged advocacy of US reconciliation with Iran. This advocacy now goes way beyond what is comfortable for the right-wing hawk section of pro-Israel thought in the US and in Israel. It is also by now far ahead of where the US' overall consensus position on Iran is.

The New York Times now is closer in its view of Iran to the US defense establishment than it is to the US civilian foreign policy establishment. The US foreign policy establishment is heavily influenced by Jewish Americans who feel a sentimental connection to Zionism. Most people who care enough about the region to steer themselves into the direction of working on the Middle East for their careers are Jewish. Everybody who works on that region as a career works with a large amount of Jewish Americans. This has given US policy up to now a very heavy pro-Israel tilt. This effect is far stronger in the State Department than in the Army because people at state have more flexibility to serve where they are most interested. The state department is also more Jewish to start with than the Army.

In the run up to Iraq, the Army and State Department were aligned. Americans, even professionals, were angry in a vague way at the Arab/Muslim people. An invasion offered an opportunity to cause a lot of damage. Hussein's armed forces clearly could not win a confrontation directly. The New York Times infamously hosted Judith Miller, who worked to advance the cause of invasion. At the time though, there was no institutional opposition to the invasion in either the civilian or military foreign policy establishments.

Iran 2009 is a different story than Iraq 2002.

Possibly partly to make amends for its role in advocating the Iraq war that is now seen as a failure, the New York Times has become the media source in its class that is the most vigorous in opposition to hostility with Iran. Another possible motivation may be that the New York Times may be more well attuned with the US military foreign policy establishment than other media organizations. This would not have made a difference in the run-up to Iraq because then the military was as enthusiastic as the civilians. The difference may be coming into view today.

So we have Roger Cohen expressing anger at Barack Obama for not more forcefully imposing his views on Netanyahu.

Obama must remind Israel of that. He should also tell Bibi that the real existential threat to Israel is not Amalek but hubris: An attack on Iran that would put the Jewish state at war with Persians as well as Arabs, undermine its core U.S. alliance, and set Tehran on a full-throttle course to a nuclear bomb with the support of some 1.2 billion Muslims.

Last week we had Flynn and Hillary Mann Leverett call for a complete reversal of US Iran policy as the only way to prevent disaster.

Why has President Obama put himself in a position from which he cannot deliver on his own professed interest in improving relations with the Islamic Republic? Some diplomatic veterans who have spoken with him have told us that the president said that he did not realize, when he came to office, how “hard” the Iran problem would be. But what is hard about the Iran problem is not periodic inflammatory statements from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or episodes like Ms. Saberi’s detention. What is really hard is that getting America’s Iran policy “right” would require a president to take positions that some allies and domestic constituencies won’t like.

I agree with both. Though Obama's style has always been to cede symbolic victories to his opponents to make what seem to him as more substantive issues easier for his opponents to accept. My best guess at this point is that Obama intends to go back on the US position that Iran cannot enrich uranium and if I'm right the symbols that are alarming Cohen and the Leveretts really are less important.

I'm most intrigued though, by the role the New York Times is playing in advocating more cooperative policy towards Iran. The NYT is famously Jewish owned and managed and was far more hawkish on the Iraq invasion than the median American, to say nothing of the median New York City resident, which itself was more opposed to the invasion than the rest of the United States.

Last year the Boston Globe was publishing stories that Iran had achieved "escalation dominance" in its region. The implication was that Iran was too potentially dangerous to the US position in the region to confront directly. This assessment clearly came from US military sources. Time Magazine was the first major source to clearly describe the difference between having a nuclear weapon and being "nuclear capable", defying US policy of trying to confuse those two concepts as much as possible. Last year at this time, the New York Times hewed the line that capability is a weapon very annoyingly.

The Boston Globe and Time Magazine may well be more flexible in what sources they allow themselves to give voice to. The change in perception towards Iran, felt more strongly in some parts of the US foreign policy establishment than others, may have reached those media sources earlier than they reached the NY Times. Or possibly the New York Times took longer to make the decision to publish that point of view. But the New York Times is certainly publishing that point of view now, in its own name and attached to its own prestige and credibility, to the US decision-making class.

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