Power and Weakness


I genuinely don't understand the quaking fear over Ahmadinejad's interview at Columbia. When did America become so weak, so insecure, that we mistrust our capacity to converse with potentially hostile world leaders? Do we really believe the president of Columbia is so doltish as to be outsmarted by a former traffic engineer from Tehran? Do we really see no utility in publicly grilling prominent liars in such a way that their denials lose credibility? What do we have to lose from a foreign leader, even a hostile one, somberly laying a wreath at the site of a tragedy? When did we become so afraid? And for all the conservative talk that a loss in Iraq will diminish our reputation for strength and thus harm our security, how must it look when some three-foot tall Iranian firebrand keeps trying to dialogue with us and we keep dodging his calls?

I think it's worth distinguishing between two inter-related objections to Ahmadinejad's Columbia appearance. The first, which is mine, is that it's shameful for a great American university to supply a prominent platform to an odious figure like Iran's President, particularly at a time when his government is almost certainly involved in attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq. The second, which can follow from the first but doesn't necessarily, is that the act of inviting Ahmadinejad to speak is a manifestation of American weakness that may eventually contribute to our destruction at the hands of our enemies. For hints of the latter take, see this Roger Kimball post, in which he quotes from Bagehot:

History is strewn with the wrecks of nations which have gained a little progressiveness at the cost of a great deal of hard manliness, and have thus prepared themselves for destruction as soon as the movements of the world gave a chance for it.

Were the year 1938, and the speaker in question Adolf Hitler as opposed to Ahmadinejad, this quotation would feel more apropos. But this is where I part ways with some of my confreres on the right: I don't think it's accurate or useful to suggest that the American intellectual class is preparing our country for "destruction" by extending a nauseating degree of courtesy to a poisonous Iranian demagogue. The German Fuhrer was actually an existential threat to the free nations of the West, and the failure of the chattering classes of his era to reckon with that threat did prepare their nations for the destruction visited on them in World War II. Whereas Ahmadinejad is a tinhorn rabblerouser with a tenous grip on power, and the country he attempts to rule is a paper tiger whose quest for nuclear weapons is a manifestation of its weakness, not its strength. I despise him, and I fervently wish that I inhabited a country whose great universities had the good sense not to treat his appearance in New York as an occasion for a lesson in "free speech." (Particularly given the slight double standard that occasionally seems to be at work in American academia these days.) But I don't fear him, because I think that America is easily strong enough - and our enemies weak enough, more importantly - to survive the folly on display at Columbia University today.

Update: See also Reihan's thoughts.

Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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