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In the opening statement of a press conference two weeks ago at the United Nations, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spent several minutes talking about traffic. The Iranian president apologized to the New York pedestrians who were inconvenienced by the streets blocked for security reasons during his appearance at the General Assembly. Then he complimented the city's police force for handling the situation with such aplomb.
For those many American Jews who despaired over Ahmadinejad's appearances here, both at the UN and before the Council on Foreign Relations, the sight of Israel's most dangerous enemy heaping obsequious praise on his host city must have seemed just one more reason why he should never have been granted a visa. At Columbia University, where I teach, we narrowly avoided giving Ahmadinejad another establishment forum, when the school's president overruled the renegade dean who had extended an invitation.
So I understand all the arguments against Ahmadinejad's high-profile presence here, the degree of acceptability it apparently conferred upon him. But I find myself, finally, disagreeing with them. The more Ahmadinejad got to speak without filter, the more Americans got to hear without editing, the better for our national understanding of just what a grave and serious threat he is.
FOR ISRAELIS, who just endured the aggression of a Hizbullah armed and inspired by Iran, the danger of Ahmadinejad hardly requires any more proof-texts. For Americans, at least for Americans who are not Jewish or politically conservative, Ahmadinejad makes the most persuasive argument against himself.
More than three years since the invasion of Iraq on the basis of discredited and even contrived evidence, the Bush Administration has lost so much credibility with all but the truest believers that many moderates and liberals will reflexively disbelieve anything the president says. His warnings about Ahmadinejad come heavily weighted with the past exaggerations about Saddam Hussein and an Iraq-Al Qaida link.
The best tonic for this impulse was the sight and sound of Ahmadinejad during his New York appearances. No Bush-basher could easily explain away Ahmadinejad's sincere, unadulterated persistence in treating the Shoah like some urban legend, like some quirky theory in need of independent analysis. Nor could any intelligent person miss the transparent deviousness during the press conference, when Ahmadinejad played dumb about Iran's support of Hizbullah, this in response to a question from a Lebanese journalist.
Realizing how deeply and genuinely Ahmadinejad holds his treacherous ideas was only part of the reason for Americans to pay attention. It was also vital for people here to understand just how talented a political leader he is. After his time in New York, there should be no perverse comfort taken in writing off Ahmadinejad as a blowhard, an accidental provocateur, too unschooled to be much of a risk.
In Mark Bowden's recent book about the Iranian hostage crisis, Guests of the Ayatollah, he treats the Islamist militants who seized and held American diplomats and managed to humiliate the United States for more than a year mostly as the butts of their captives' one-liners, sort of like Sgt. Schultz in Hogan's Heroes. Bowden contends that the Iranian religious radicals lined up on the wrong side of history and harmed their country's interests.
Yet, after 27 years of American sanctions, Iran is a growing, not a declining regional force, thanks in no small measure to the US overthrows of Saddam and the Taliban. And Ahmadinejad showed himself in New York disturbingly adroit at exploiting legitimate grievances to murderous ends. Just as Adolf Hitler won electoral power partly by playing on German indignation over the Versailles terms of reparations, Ahmadinejad clothed his platform of eradicating Israel within a critique of the post-World War II colonial order that would not have seemed out of place on The Guardian's editorial page.
IN A General Assembly session that seemed like a throwback to the Cold War era of political theater, Venezuela's populist dictator Hugo Chavez willingly played the jerk, cracking jokes about Bush being the devil and coming on to a Columbian journalist.
Ahmadinejad stayed in control, swatting away difficult questions, generously assuring us Jews that he respects us (provided, of course, we return back to being the dhimmi in the caliphate).
Sure, it would have been a lot less exasperating to have been able to tune him out. But would it be better for the United States, which, later or sooner, will be facing some kind of reckoning with the nuclear saber-rattling of Ahmadinejad's Iran? I might answer that question with one a friend offered just the other day: Would the world have been different if more Americans had read Mein Kampf in 1933?
The writer, a regular contributor, is a professor of journalism at Columbia University and the author of six books.