Someday, I fear, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's recent appearance at Columbia University will be more than a quickly forgotten item in our 24-hour news cycle. Someday, I fear, history may mark his visit the way it now marks a long-ago debate on another campus.
The year was 1933, and the Oxford Union debated one of its most famous motions: "This House will under no circumstances fight for King and Country." Weary and cynical, the Oxford Union passed the motion, 275-153. Winston Churchill railed against "this ever shameful motion." And Adolf Hitler? Some say it helped prompt him to invade Europe.
What will history make of Columbia's forum? Little, if Ahmadinejad and the mullahs are deposed or defanged before they can do more damage. But what if they go through with the things Ahmadinejad has been all too clear about pursuing? History will not be kind to the morally confused Columbia leaders who gave evil a forum in the name of freedom of speech.
Say this about the chaps who voted for the Oxford Union motion: They didn't really know what Hitler had in store for Europe in 1933. They also didn't invite Hitler to the Oxford Union for a chat.
Before dishing up his generalities, Ahmadinejad has been clear about his plans for Israel and his thoughts on the Holocaust. He has said Iran does "not give a damn" about U.N. resolutions and that Israel is "a disgraceful stain on the Islamic world" and doomed to be "wiped from the map"—a "fake regime" built on the Holocaust "myth." Also, Iran is not all talk. It's a state sponsor of terrorism, and its weapons are now killing U.S. soldiers in Iraq.
And, still, the head of this regime lands an invitation to one of our nation's most prestigious schools.
Lee Bollinger's remarks prior to Ahmadinejad's speech only highlighted the squalid folly of hosting him in the first place. Columbia's president preened about his university's "deep commitment to free expression and debate," but his other words betrayed a recognition that Monday's exchange of ideas wasn't going to be all that useful. Indeed, he cast doubt on his commitment to free expression.
How? Well, you don't invite someone in for an exchange of views and start off by insulting your guest. Yes, it was good to see Bollinger call Ahmadinejad a "petty and cruel dictator" whose musing on the Holocaust "makes you ... ridiculous"—even if he did so to try to salvage Columbia's honor. But if you cannot invite guests to your university without feeling compelled to insult them, you probably shouldn't invite them in the first place. It's rude. Ahmadinejad was right to call Bollinger on this, and the crowd was right to applaud Ahmadinejad's protest.
It's also clear that Bollinger didn't have high hopes Ahmadinejad would say much of interest. "I doubt that you will have the intellectual courage to answer these questions," Bollinger said. "But your avoiding them will in itself be meaningful to us."
Ahmadinejad did not disappoint, but I doubt his predicted evasions were more meaningful than the raw fact of his speaking at Columbia.
And what was its meaning? Iranians have now been told that Americans gave Ahmadinejad a standing ovation and applauded his musings on international affairs. Americans, for their part, have learned that one of our great universities feels fine giving a megaphone to an enemy in wartime—while at the same time refusing to allow the ROTC on its campus.
Is that too harsh a judgment? After all, who says Ahmadinejad and Iran are our enemy?
Bollinger says so. He made this plain Monday. "A number of Columbia graduates and current students are among the brave members of our military who are serving or have served in Iraq and Afghanistan," Bollinger said to Ahmadinejad. "They, like other Americans with sons, daughters, fathers, husbands and wives serving in combat, rightly see your government as the enemy. Can you tell them and us why Iran is fighting a proxy war in Iraq by arming Shiite militia targeting and killing U.S. troops?"
Yet Columbia invites a man "rightly" seen as the enemy—an enemy in a proxy war that results in the killing of U.S. troops—to sit down and chat.
How will history judge Bollinger and Columbia? High-minded and harmless scholars or useful idiots?