While a few commentators are suggesting that Ahmadinejad was put in his place by Columbia President Lee Bollinger tonight, I just can't see it. Those who think he's mad and dangerous will have heard nothing to change their minds, while those on the extreme left who see him as an ally in their war against President Bush will if anything be emboldened. As John Bolton pointed out, it’s not like we don’t know what Ahmadinejad’s positions are; the issue is whether you legitimise those positions by giving him a platform.
For Ahmadinejad to have been in any way phased by Bollinger's attack would have required that he have a conception of right and wrong that relates in some way to ours. This, after all, is a man who fantasises about one day initiating a nuclear exchange that might take hundreds of thousands of lives. It’s fair to say that even the most forgiving members of the international community are going to be pretty upset if and when he does it, and if Ahmadinejad has made his peace with suffering the consequences, assuming that he emerges from his bunker unscathed, then he’s unlikely to be troubled by an attack that was reminiscent of Frasier Crane at his eloquent, pompous best.
The fact that as many students applauded Ahmadinejad as applauded Bollinger helped to create the impression of a moral victory for the Iranian leader; how disheartening those pictures will be for the millions of Iranians who look to America to help bring about change in their county. It's a sad fact that there are a lot of disturbed young people who, to paraphrase the suicide bombers they so admire, hate Bush more than they love life – and I'm not talking about their own lives of course, but the lives of Iranian dissidents, American troops and ordinary people from Baghdad to Tel Aviv.
Ahmadinejad’s remarks are unlikely to change many minds in the US and Europe as to how we should deal with Iran. As Hugh Hewitt points out, in the best piece I've read on tonight's events, what should really be concerning those who fear Ahmadinejad is the way that his visit will be reported in Iran and the Middle East:
Meanwhile the networks catering to the jihadists will be slicing and dicing the fanatic's remarks; he will earn the admiration of radicals across the Arab world for standing up to the Americans; and the repressed people of Iran, especially the students who cannot speak out, the press that is muzzled, and the gays who don't exist will get all of Ahmadinejad and little if any of Bollinger. What will they conclude? Even a cursory examination of The Looming Tower or Inside The Jihad or any of many other serious books on the Islamist war against the West dwells on the crucial role of propaganda in pushing the extremist message, both Salafist and Shia versions. Today's fiasco has nothing to do with what Bollinger said, a name little known or long remembered anywhere outside of the upper West Side. It is about the platform Columbia provided this thug who is actively engaged in the killing of American soldiers and Marines while plotting the extermination of Israel.
The cause of freedom in the Arab World has been damaged tonight, and that may in turn have implications for the security of the West. It’s not a disaster, but it’s a setback. We can only be grateful that Ahmadinejad didn’t get to deliver his sly sermon at Ground Zero.