The New York Sun's Annie Karni reports that Lee Bollinger's harsh remarks to Iran's president are drawing sharp criticism from many in the Columbia community:
A backlash against the president of Columbia University, Lee Bollinger, who on Monday delivered a harsh rebuke to President Ahmadinejad, is coming from faculty members and students who said he struck an "insulting tone" and that his remarks amounted to "schoolyard taunts." The fierceness of Mr. Bollinger's critique bought the Iranian some sympathy on campus that he didn't deserve, the critics said, and amounted to a squandered opportunity to provide a lesson in diplomacy.
Mr. Bollinger opened a two-hour program during which the Iranian president spoke and answered questions at the Roone Arledge Auditorium in Morningside Heights by calling Mr. Ahmadinejad a "petty and cruel dictator." He chastised the Iranian for calling for the destruction of Israel, funding terrorism, persecuting scholars, women, and homosexuals, denying the Holocaust, and for fighting a proxy war against America within the borders of Iraq. Mr. Bollinger also tauntingly predicted that the Iranian would lack the "intellectual courage" to offer real answers to questions from the audience.
"It's odd to invite someone and then deal with the objections to inviting him by insulting him before he gets to talk," a professor of political science at Columbia, Richard Betts, said during an interview in his office yesterday. "He's having it both ways in a sense, honoring the principle of free speech by not choosing speakers on the basis of how nice they are, but being sharp to him before he speaks."
Mr. Betts said a more appropriate introduction would have been to make clear that an invitation to speak at Columbia did not qualify as approval of the content of the speech. He said the message should have been delivered as a "less in-your-face assault."
Students said they interpreted the severity of Mr. Bollinger's opening, in which he called Mr. Ahmadinejad's denial of the Holocaust "brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated," as a cowing to political and financial pressure from elected officials who in the days leading up to the event criticized Columbia for providing a platform for Mr. Ahmadinejad and said they would consider reducing capital aid to the university.
Yesterday, Karni wrote that a number of public figures praised Bollinger for his attack introduction:
It is unclear whether Mr. Bollinger's performance is enough to redeem his reputation as the president of Columbia in the eyes of Jewish leaders and elected officials who have called for his resignation in the last week after he extended the invitation to the Iranian leader.
"I am only a professor, who is also a university president, and today I feel all the weight of the modern civilized world yearning to express the revulsion at what you stand for," Mr. Bollinger said. "I only wish I could do better."
Mr. Bollinger's remarks drew praise from some officials even as they continued to criticize his decision to host Mr. Ahmadinejad on campus.
"He turned what could have been an embarrassment for higher education into something quite positive," the president of the New School, Robert Kerrey, said in an interview yesterday. "He turned a difficult situation into something that at the margin was positive for him. He did not allow the moment to pass." Mr. Kerrey said he would never invite Mr. Ahmadinejad to the New School.
Scott at Powerline opines that Bollinger's hostile questions (complete text here) were intended to save the school's reputation:
In today's New York Sun, Annie Karni reports on the backlash against Bollinger for his efforts to rescue the school's reputation in his remarks prefatory to his turning the podium over to Ahmadinejad. Columbia worthies quoted by Karni such as Gary Sick and Eric Foner will help lower the school's reputation, if possible, among those who understand what happened at Columbia on Monday.
"Those who understand what happened" meaning Scott and other far-right hawkish types who are itching for the U.S. to bomb Iran. Certainly nobody is happy about the handling of Ahmadinejad's visit -- not least of all Iranians. Now the heads of seven Iranian universities have gotten up a list of 10 questions they would like Bollinger to answer:
Mr. Lee Bollinger
Columbia University President
We, the professors and heads of universities and research institutions in Tehran , hereby announce our displeasure and protest at your impolite remarks prior to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's recent speech at Columbia University.
We would like to inform you that President Ahmadinejad was elected directly by the Iranian people through an enthusiastic two-round poll in which almost all of the country's political parties and groups participated. To assess the quality and nature of these elections you may refer to US news reports on the poll dated June 2005.
Your insult, in a scholarly atmosphere, to the president of a country with a population of 72 million and a recorded history of 7,000 years of civilization and culture is deeply shameful.
Your comments, filled with hate and disgust, may well have been influenced by extreme pressure from the media, but it is regrettable that media policy-makers can determine the stance a university president adopts in his speech.
Your remarks about our country included unsubstantiated accusations that were the product of guesswork as well as media propaganda. Some of your claims result from misunderstandings that can be clarified through dialogue and further research.
During his speech, Mr. Ahmadinejad answered a number of your questions and those of students. We are prepared to answer any remaining questions in a scientific, open and direct debate.
You asked the president approximately ten questions. Allow us to ask you ten of our own questions in the hope that your response will help clear the atmosphere of misunderstanding and distrust between our two countries and reveal the truth.
1- Why did the US media put you under so much pressure to prevent Mr. Ahmadinejad from delivering his speech at Columbia University? And why have American TV networks been broadcasting hours of news reports insulting our president while refusing to allow him the opportunity to respond? Is this not against the principle of freedom of speech?
2- Why, in 1953, did the US administration overthrow the Iran's national government under Dr Mohammad Mosaddegh and go on to support the Shah's dictatorship?
3- Why did the US support the blood-thirsty dictator Saddam Hussein during the 1980-88 Iraqi-imposed war on Iran, considering his reckless use of chemical weapons against Iranian soldiers defending their land and even against his own people?
4- Why is the US putting pressure on the government elected by the majority of Palestinians in Gaza instead of officially recognizing it? And why does it oppose Iran 's proposal to resolve the 60-year-old Palestinian issue through a general referendum?
5- Why has the US military failed to find Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden even with all its advanced equipment? How do you justify the old friendship between the Bush and Bin Laden families and their cooperation on oil deals? How can you justify the Bush administration's efforts to disrupt investigations concerning the September 11 attacks?
6- Why does the US administration support the Mujahedin Khalq Organization (MKO) despite the fact that the group has officially and openly accepted the responsibility for numerous deadly bombings and massacres in Iran and Iraq? Why does the US refuse to allow Iran 's current government to act against the MKO's main base in Iraq?
7- Was the US invasion of Iraq based on international consensus and did international institutions support it? What was the real purpose behind the invasion which has claimed hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives? Where are the weapons of mass destruction that the US claimed were being stockpiled in Iraq?
8- Why do America's closest allies in the Middle East come from extremely undemocratic governments with absolutist monarchical regimes?
9- Why did the US oppose the plan for a Middle East free of unconventional weapons in the recent session of the International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors despite the fact the move won the support of all members other than Israel?
10- Why is the US displeased with Iran's agreement with the IAEA and why does it openly oppose any progress in talks between Iran and the agency to resolve the nuclear issue under international law?
Finally, we would like to express our readiness to invite you and other scientific delegations to our country. A trip to Iran would allow you and your colleagues to speak directly with Iranians from all walks of life including intellectuals and university scholars. You could then assess the realities of Iranian society without media censorship before making judgments about the Iranian nation and government.
You can be assured that Iranians are very polite and hospitable toward their guests.
Note that final sentence. Nice twist of the knife, that.
McQ unloads the full weight of his scorn on Bollinger:
How wonderful. Thanks Columbia. Thanks Bollinger. You willingly provide a forum, get cold feet, cave to the pressure (but not enough to outright cancel the event) and insult your guest. And now the focus is on the insults and the propaganda value for Iran is incalculable.
Quite right -- but truth might be better served if McQ acknowledged the right's responsibility for that pressure. What if Bollinger had rescinded the invitation? Does anyone imagine that cancelling Ahmadinejad's appearance at Columbia would not also have been a propaganda gift to Iran? The same people who are campaigning against Iran's government for repressing Iranians' right to free speech, attacking and threatening a top American university for inviting Iran's president to speak in the United States because we disagree with his views? Bollinger's verbal assault on Ahmadinejad was disgraceful, but none of this would have happened if the Bush-worshipping, warmongering right had not been so terrified of Americans freely exchanging ideas, face to face, with the Bush administration's official Demon of the Moment.