Richard Cohen is Popping Off

Over the years, I’ve produced a lot of headlines. For example, there was The Disgraceful Richard Cohen and The Stupefying Richard Cohen and What is Richard Cohen Talking About?. There was Wanker of the Day: Richard Cohen (Part One), Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven, and Part Eight. Then there was Richard Cohen: Wanker of the Century.

Other headlines included: Richard Cohen on White-Collar Crime, Richard Cohen, Still Wrong, Richard Cohen’s Battered Wife Syndrome, Richard Cohen’s Attack on Obama, Richard Cohen’s America, and Cohen’s Larger Sins.

Obviously, I am not a fan of Richard Cohen.

Alex Pareene made a name for himself at Salon by doing an annual year-end series on the biggest hacks in journalism. In 2013, Richard Cohen came in fifth place. In 2010, he came in first.

Over the years, it’s almost became a sport for bloggers to tear apart Richard Cohen’s asinine columns in the Washington Post. I think, on some level, the hope has been that if a critical mass of mockery is reached, someone at the Post would give Cohen a severance package and bid him adieu.

Sadly, reaching that critical mass has proven difficult, which is why Cohen has
a new column out today in which he argues that “the presidency has changed Barack Obama…his eloquence has been replaced by petulance and he has lost the power to persuade.”

As is Cohen’s wont, Obama’s “petulance” and power of persuasion have exactly nothing to do with the point that Cohen wants to make. The actual substance of Cohen’s argument is that the president could have done something about Syria if he had just listened to folks like him and done something bolder early on.

George W. Bush’s Iraq war was a lesson to us all. But from the start of the Syrian crisis, no one sane was proposing doing it all over again. Instead, the proposal was to intervene early and attempt to avoid the bloodbath and humanitarian calamity that have resulted. The idea was to do more than simply tell Bashar al-Assad to return to practicing ophthalmology in London and for the United States and its allies to take some action — such as grounding Assad’s helicopters. And when it came to the Islamic State, the proposal was to do more than make some initially inadequate bombing runs, but put spotters on the ground and train anti-Assad fighters who had a stake in the fighting. As it was, the United States managed to assemble an army of about half a dozen.

There’s nothing in here that remotely acknowledges that the conflict in Syria is a direct result of the invasion of Iraq and the sectarian bloodshed it unleashed. Nowhere does Cohen recognize that the fighters arrayed against Assad are Sunnis who have been radicalized by their loss of status in Iraq. For Cohen, we could ground Assad’s helicopters without it leading to al-Qaeda/Islamic State folks taking over Damascus. And we could decimate the Sunni fighters without it helping to entrench Assad.

There’s not even a glimmer of recognition on Cohen’s part that perhaps he was wrong to suggest that we could arm moderates to win this civil war when he mocks the half dozen moderates we actually managed to find and train.

From the beginning, Cohen hasn’t had the slightest idea what to do about Syria and all his suggestions have been based on fantasies. And this is exactly how he was in the lead-up to Iraq. By his own admission:

I thought the war [in Iraq] would do wonders for the Middle East and that it would last, at the most, a week or two. In this I was assured by the usual experts in and out of government. My head nodded like one of those little toy dogs in the window of the car ahead of you.

I think that’s unforgivable, actually, but I might find some generosity in my heart for Cohen if he evinced any evidence that he’s learned from that experience. Instead, he says this:

Obama is confined by the prospect of another Iraq. He defends his policy of minimalism with an off-putting petulance: “If folks want to pop off and have opinions…. ” He talked of seeing at Walter Reed hospital “a 25-year-old kid who’s paralyzed or has lost his limbs…. And so I can’t afford to play some of the political games that others may.” Yes, some of the Republican presidential candidates are playing games, but Obama’s critics in think tanks and elsewhere are dead – serious. Besides, life presents mean choices. Limbs were lost in Paris, too.

To a large degree, Obama became president on the strength of his eloquence. To a large degree, that is what has deserted him. He is out of words because he is out of ideas. Consequently, he ought to listen to others. They’re not the ones who are popping off. He is.

Nowhere in this column is there any suggestion for what Obama ought to do differently in Syria today other than listen to people “in think tanks and elsewhere” who are dead serious.

That’s exactly what Cohen did the last time around.

He’s learned nothing.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.