Columbia 'Welcomes' Ahmadinejad
Reaction from a Loyal Reader
A loyal reader writes:
OK, this story from yesterday's news got me a little active, so I need to rant.
I find this whole affair to be bizarre in the least, and somewhat unsettling. Although I do believe in free speech and open discussion, honestly I'm not sure what Columbia University's invitation was meant to achieve. On the one hand you have Columbia University President Leo Bollinger saying before Ahmadinejad's visit that Columbia University wanted to have the President of Iran come and speak in order to have a "confrontation of ideas" ( http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/7009731.stm). Then when the President actually comes, Bollinger proceeds to lambast him for being a "petty and cruel dictator", and insinuates that he (Bollinger) represents the entire civilized world in this forum against the Iranian President ( http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/7010962.stm, and see the BBC video).
Now, first off, let me say that I do think that Ahmadinejad's viewpoints on many historical and geopolitical matters are wrong, and eccentric (to say the least) to boot. Ahmadinejad's administration has been noteworthy for its crushing of internal dissent and renewed attempts to oppose strict fundamentalist moral codes with force. Ahmadinejad's history has been at the forefront of the Iranian Revolution, and he was supportive (if not actually indirectly involved in) the 1979 hostage crisis. His calls to "wipe Israel off the map" are extremely unsettling, his Holocaust revisionism is just wrong, and Iran's Pasdaran has been engaged in causing armed mischief across the Middle East. All this is to say nothing of the uranium enrichment crisis.
Yet at the end of the day, I must say that in this latest episode all the shame should go to Bollinger. His words and actions strike me as duplicitous. Why invite a figure to engage in public discourse, and then merely excoriate him? If the debate was supposed to expose the flaws in Ahmadinejad's beliefs, then why not invite a suitable counterpart such as Elie Wiesel (if he would come) to debate his Holocaust revisionism? And isn't Ahmadinejad's speech at the UN today supposed to be the platform for letting world leaders rant and rave?
Bollinger did nothing except incite controversy. He seems to be a showman of the level of PJ Barnum, with the tact of Michael Moore. One of the Economist blogs noted ( in a quickly-hidden passage: http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/iran/) that despite his beliefs the President of Iran was an invited guest, and treating a guest with some level of good manners is expected (especially in Asian cultures). All this forum did was provide Bollinger some free advertising for Columbia, perhaps some income (I wonder if the quickly-snatched up tickets were sold or not), and a chance to show himself as the Western worlds academic superman. This really was not a forum for debate, merely a chance to score some quick points against an increasingly reviled figure in the Western world.
However, considering the showman that Ahmadinejad is, one wonders if this does not play more into his hands. He honestly could care less what the students and faculty of Columbia University think about him, let alone the elite of Manhattan. His audience is the Middle East and wider Muslim community, and as reprehensible as his beliefs may be (especially over the Holocaust), they are beliefs shared by many in the Middle East. Such a display only will serve to discourage debate, not encourage it - I am sure many in the Middle East will actually think more highly of Ahmadinejad for standing up to the rude Americans. Ahmadinejad strikes me as something of a political showman, and any scenario making him appear the victim will only further his cause and popularity among his intended audience. And also please remember that as petty and cruel as the Iranian President may be, he does not control the nuclear program or Pasdaran - those ultimately answer to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khameini. It seems sometimes that the West gives more power to Ahmadinejad than he may in fact have.
Finally, I have real concerns about what such irresponsible events such as this planned by Bollinger. There is increasing talk of war between the US and Iran. I am sure most of the faculty and students of Columbia oppose the Iraq War, but seem to care little for raising the shrill tenor in a crisis with Iran. War with Iran will not resolve the current crisis, and will be more costly, more bloody and more likely to fail than the current venture in Iraq. But Columbia seems to care more about its own publicity than the fact that they are encouraging the voices in this crisis to sound more shrill and dire. Iran should be confronted diplomatically and with strong and forceful sanctions and pressure (which already are causing problems for the regime, witness this summer's gasoline rationing and subsequent riots). Pushing the American public to again be whipped up for war is an irresponsible act that negates any attempt to try to exhaust all other possible means for crisis resolution.