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Let foolish leaders look foolish

Let foolish leaders look foolish
By DOUGLAS COHN
and ELEANOR CLIFT
WASHINGTON — Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit to New York ignited protests over free speech in America when the story should be the restrictions placed on free speech in Iran. Granting Ahmadinejad a forum does not mean we agree with him, or that we find his views any less abhorrent.
To the contrary, America’s willingness to let the leader of a hostile nation stand up and freely express his world view is the best advertising for what we proclaim to be, a free nation founded on freedom of speech and unafraid of an exchange of ideas, however much we disagree.
Washington Post cartoonist Tom Toles got it right with an image that shows a noose fashioned from a foundation of free speech, with Ahmadinejad hanging himself with his words. The American people got to hear first hand his uncompromising defiance on Iran’s pursuit of nuclear technology and his belief that God would stay the hand of President Bush from launching a preemptive strike against his country. From a propaganda viewpoint, Ahmadinejad’s rambling and God-filled speeches did nothing to advance Iran on the world stage as a responsible regional power.
If anything, the exposure given him bolsters hardliners in the Bush administration who are pushing for military action. Among the countervailing arguments is the realization that the Iranian president is not popular at home, that his own people regard him increasingly as out of touch, and that his performance in New York this week may well have put him in further disfavor with the clerics who are the real power in Iran. The economy has tanked under Ahmadinejad’s leadership, and his pyrotechnics are designed in part to distract from Iran’s economic woes.
Iran is a vast and populous country with a large middle class that chafes under Ahmadinejad’s leadership. While it is hard to predict the outcome of any election, especially one in a country we know so little about, Ahmadinejad is no shoo-in for reelection principally because of the poor economy. A bombing attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would rally the country and could win another term for the leader most associated with baiting the West. It’s not a ploy the Bush administration should fall for knowing how weakened Ahmadinejad is as Iran’s president.
The president of Columbia University, Lee Bollinger, did the right thing in extending an invitation to the Iranian president to come speak to students. Unfortunately, Bollinger followed up with an act of press pandering when he turned his introduction into a string of insults before Ahmadinejad even had a chance to speak. He should have taken the high road and simply quoted Voltaire, who famously said, “I disagree with what you say but will fight to the death for your right to say it.”
Ahmadinejad got a round of applause when he protested the hostile reception from Bollinger, which says Columbia’s students understand the concept of free speech even if the university president was having second thoughts. The students were also quick off the mark to greet Ahmadinejad’s statement that there are no homosexuals in Iran with hoots and jeers. Sodomy is punishable by death in Iran.
Why would we want to prevent a petty dictator from sounding stupid? America has a long and proud history of giving foreign leaders the stage to become their own worst enemy. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev visited the U.S. at the height of the Cold War and in one of the iconic moments in the U.S. stand-off with the former Soviet Union he took off his shoe and repeatedly banged it on his desk at the United Nations. We have nothing to lose and so much to gain by letting the world in on what should be obvious. Published in The Messenger 10.02.07

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