The true novelty of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's appearance Monday at Columbia University did not, as many critics would have it, lie in the fact that an august Ivy League institution had invited the Iranian president—a Holocaust denier, authoritarian leader, and sponsor of terrorism—to speak on its campus. The protests, the fury, the screaming New York tabloid headlines, the counterarguments about free speech—all that sort of thing we have seen before.
No, the novelty of Ahmadinejad's appearance at Columbia lies in the fact that he wanted to make that speech at all. Though a blustering Columbia dean foolishly told Fox News that "if he were willing to engage in a debate and a discussion," the university would happily invite Adolf Hitler to speak, too, it's impossible, in fact, to imagine the Führer accepting. Hitler staged his theatrical public appearances with extreme care—banners, uniforms, vast crowds—and never for the purpose of creating catchy sound bites. He wasn't interested in impressing upon anyone his status as an internationally accepted "democrat" who could keep up his end of a dialogue with American students. He was interested in demonstrating his power to Germans. The same could be said of Stalin and, among modern totalitarian leaders, of North Korea's Kim Jong-il.
Ahmadinejad's agenda is different, though, from that of the traditional autocrat. His goal is not merely to hold power in Iran through sheer force, or even through a standard 20th-century personality cult. His goal is to undermine the American and Western democracy rhetoric that poses an ideological threat to the Iranian regime. Last winter, when he invited a host of dubious Holocaust-deniers to discuss the Holocaust in Tehran, he claimed it was in order to provide shelter for the West's "dissidents"—that is, for Western thinkers "who cannot express their views freely in Europe about the Holocaust." This week, he declared that his visit to New York will help the American people, who have "suffered in diverse ways and have been deprived of access to accurate information." Thus, the speech at Columbia: Here he is, the allegedly undemocratic Ahmadinejad, taking questions from students! At an American university! Look who's the real democrat now!
This sort of game is both irritating and dangerous, particularly when it is being played by a man whose regime locks up academics for the "crime" of organizing academic conferences and regularly arrests the Iranian equivalent of the students who listened to him speak Monday. Iran is currently experiencing an unprecedented wave of political executions—more than 300 since January, according to the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation—and there is renewed pressure on the media.
In that atmosphere, it was deeply naive to imagine that the Iranian president would enter into a "vigorous debate" with students who were deploying their "powers of dialogue and reason," as Columbia University President Lee Bollinger stated before the event, or that he would answer the appropriately aggressive questions Bollinger put to him—which of course he didn't. (To a question about the persecution of gays, he responded, "In Iran, we don't have homosexuals like in your country.") All things being equal, the university would have done better simply to ignore him, instead of feeding the media circus that serves his purposes. It's not as if he is deprived of a platform in this country after all: He ducked and dodged his way through a long interview on 60 Minutes, and his pronouncements regularly appear in media of all kinds.
Nevertheless, it would have been wrong, once he'd been invited, to ban Ahmadinejad from speaking. To do so would have both granted him far more significance than he deserves and played right into his "I'm the real democrat here" rhetoric. Instead, the university should have demanded genuine reciprocity. If the president and dean of Columbia truly believed in an open exchange of ideas, they should have presented Ahmadinejad with an Iranian dissident or human-rights activist to debate—someone from his own culture who could argue with him in his own language—instead of allowing him to be filmed on a podium with important-looking Americans. Perhaps Columbia could even have insisted on an appropriate exchange:
Ahmadinejad speaks in New York, Columbia sends a leading Western atheist—Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, or, better still, Ayaan Hirsi Ali—to Qum, the Shiite holy city, to debate the mullahs on their own ground.
I realize that isn't likely. But neither is it likely that this past week's free-speech-vs.-nasty-dictator debate, complete with spluttering New York politicians and puffed-up university professors, achieved much either. On the contrary, it focused attention in the wrong place. Instead of debating freedom of speech in Iran, here we are once again talking about freedom of speech in America, a subject we know a lot more about. Which is exactly what Ahmadinejad wanted.