When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke at Columbia University yesterday, he did not emerge with the "propaganda victory" that the neocon pundit Bill Kristol assured us he would receive. He didn't seem to be having fun either. Instead, he had to listen while Columbia President Lee Bollinger lambasted him for the terrible state of civil liberties in Iran: the executions, the political prisoners, the persecution of homosexuals. Bollinger also questioned Iran's foreign policy -- sometimes skating past the province of the proven, but never beyond the realm of legitimate inquiries -- and he challenged the Iranian for suggesting the Holocaust is a "myth." Agence France-Presse called the introduction "a humiliating and public dressing down."
And then, after presenting his point of view, Ahmadinejad faced frequently hostile questions from the audience. Immediately before the Columbia speech, he had spoken via satellite to the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., where he also had to answer audience questions. Before that he appeared on 60 Minutes, where he had faced still more questions. For a few days in September, the president of a repressive religious regime actually had to engage his critics.
No wonder the hawks were up in arms. For months Kristol and company have been telling us that engaging Iran is a dreadful, futile mistake. When they complained about Columbia's decision to let that country's president speak on campus, they were simply continuing this crippling inability to distinguish conversation from surrender. Maybe they were genuinely afraid that this would be a PR triumph for Ahmadinejad, and maybe they just didn't like the idea of a pause for reflection as they steamroll us to war. Either way, they were wrong.
I've gotten some emails telling me I'm all wet because the Iranian press will never report the reception Ahmadinejad received. Interestingly, I have also been told I'm all wet because the Iranian public is upset at how their figurehead was received and is rallying around him.
I'll also note that if Ahmadinejad had been barred from Columbia (or from the country, as some hotheads sugested) that too would have been spun as an insult and used to rally the regime's loyalists. At least this way the dissidents have a strong counternarrative.