Columbia's 'realpolitik'

The message: Once a leader reaches a certain level of power, then moral considerations must be set aside.

September 23, 2007 19:39
3 minute read.
bollinger, columbia 298

bollinger, columbia 298 . (photo credit:


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'Iran is an important country. And like it or not, we are going to have to deal with it," said Dean John Coatsworth of Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs, in defense of his school's speaking invitation to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. "We are not giving him a platform. He has plenty of platforms." "We are going to have to deal with people like this in the real world," Coatsworth continued. "We need to know more about this guy and what he stands for. And we need to challenge him when we can." Elsewhere, the same dean claimed that Columbia would have invited Adolf Hitler to speak, provided he was willing to be "challenged" by the school's faculty and students. In addition to anger, it is hard not to react with sadness to one of America's great universities succumbing to the utter distortion of the hallowed value of free speech. While Columbia officials claim, in effect, that there are no limits to whom it would engage in polite argument, a moment's thought reveals this to be untrue. We do not know if Columbia would have in fact invited Hitler to speak, had its officials known that he was presiding over mass murder, not to mention being at war with the US, at the time. We would like to think that such an august institution of higher learning would not. But even if Hitler would have been, or Ahmadinejad is, welcome at Columbia, would an Egyptian tribal leader be invited to defend female genital mutilation, a practice the Egyptian government is finally trying to ban? What about the current president of Sudan, or the leader of the Janjaweed militia that is committing genocide in Darfur? In Cuba, HIV-positive citizens have been quarantined as a health measure. In China, part of the government's one-child policy is support for forced abortions. Would Columbia be interested in hearing a defense of these policies from these governments? To take some perhaps less extreme cases, would a tobacco executive, a fur coat manufacturer or a scientist who rejects the contention that global warming is man-made be given as respectful a hearing as the president of Iran will be? This thought experiment would seem to demonstrate that it is not really free speech that is at issue, but the degree of legitimacy that Columbia is willing to grant, whether by inviting a speaker or by engaging that speaker in respectful dialogue. We would like to think, for Columbia's sake, that if it regarded the Iranian regime as guilty of incitement to genocide, a crime that the US is committed to punish as a signatory of the Genocide Convention, it would not have extended its invitation. It should not be necessary to enumerate here the crimes of the Iranian regime - from supporting terrorism, to killing American soldiers, to denying the Holocaust, to opposing peace with Israel and seeking our destruction. By inviting a leader who embodies these crimes, Columbia is saying that it does not regard them as seriously as it does other international miscreants to which it would not dream of granting such a platform. Columbia's message was, perhaps inadvertently, captured in Coatsworth's first point: that the Iranian leader is someone the US "has to deal with." In other words, once a leader reaches a certain level of power, perhaps through terrorism and potential nuclear blackmail, then moral considerations must be set aside. Columbia is not standing up for free speech, but for realpolitik in its crassest form: might makes right. Or in this case, terror makes right. It is a shame that the governor and police department of New York see no choice but to grant police protection for this visit, and that the US State Department would not restrict the Iranian leader's presence to the UN building itself. It is unfortunate that the US and other signatory countries have not fulfilled their responsibilities to enforce the Genocide Convention, which is explicitly designed to prevent genocide, by making incitement to genocide a punishable crime. Such procedures should have been initiated against Ahmadinejad years ago. If they had, perhaps Columbia would have thought differently about extending its invitation, and perhaps the international sanctions campaign to force Iran to back down would have been more successful by now.

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