The man whose name you can't pronounce is landing in New York. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will address a select group of Columbia University faculty and students on Monday as part of the school's annual World Leaders Forum.
Reactions to Columbia University's decision to invite him have been mixed, and right in line with expectations. McCain, Giuliani and groups including The Anti-Defamation League have come out swinging against the Columbia-Ahmadinejad coupling, armed with terms like "Holocaust denier," "Persian Hitler" and "state sponsor of terrorism." They also make note of what they see as Columbia's other failings: lack of an ROTC chapter, the decision to let Minuteman founder Jim Gilchrist speak last year and Columbia Dean John Coatsworth's recent remark that he would also invite Hitler to speak "if he were willing to engage in debate and a discussion."
Supporters, including Columbia President Lee Bollinger, have for their part expressed concern about the dangers of curtailing free speech. In a prepared statement, Bollinger wrote: "That such a forum could not take place on a university campus in Iran today sharpens the point of what we do here."
Once again, the American right is going about things all wrong. Ahmadinejad is their best tool. Rather than working to shut him down, they should sit back and let him speak. Here's why: Sound bites from Ahmadinejad's Columbia appearance will inevitably produce more "evidence" the administration and its hawks can use to push the need for this regime's elimination. Like his incendiary remarks at the Council on Foreign Relations last year, it is Ahmadinejad's words the administration consistently cites as supporting evidence for its cause. If Ahmadinejad wasn't afforded the opportunity to speak, and to offer up more inflammatory remarks, then the right would be without this easy ammunition in its ongoing campaign to invade Iran.
As leading campus free speech and first amendment scholar Robert O'Neil rightly notes: "If you suppress a viewpoint by disallowing or barring a controversial speaker, you make the speaker a martyr."
While all eyes are on Manhattan, precious few are watching what's happening in Washington. On Thursday, Senators Jon Kyl and Joseph Lieberman filed an amendment to the 2008 Defense Authorization Bill that would make it official U.S. policy to "combat, contain and roll back" Iran and its surrogates in Iraq. Section 5 calls for the United States to formally designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization. If passed, this amendment would open the door even wider for military action against Iran.
Why hasn't this bit of news sparked similar debate?
Follow Azadeh Ensha on Twitter: www.twitter.com/azadehensha