Iran's president not problem (Sept 27, 2007)

Denouncing Iran’s president rings hollow

The problem with lobbing rocks inside glass houses is that the shards often end up all over you.

Consider the case of Lee Bollinger, the president of Columbia University, whose 15-minute, scattershot denunciation-introduction of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at the university earlier this week was so gratuitous, insulting and self-serving it could have been written by the White House (or perhaps by those great Canadian military minds who gave us Afghan President Hamad Karzi’s supposed paean in praise of Canada’s military role in Afghanistan in the House of Commons last year).

Bollinger was doing his best intellectual tap dance to on-the-one-foot defend Columbia’s controversial decision to invite Ahmadinejad to speak as part of the university’s World Leaders’ Forum — the invitation was, he said, “in the great tradition of openness that has defined this country for many years,” ignoring the reality that he himself last year unilaterally rescinded his School of Public and International Affairs’ invitation for Ahmadinejad to speak — while making sure that no one, but especially funding agencies and potential donors, missed what he thinks of the the Iranian president. He represents “the mind of evil” and exhibits “all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator” whose views are “repugnant” to right-thinking Americans everywhere, Bollinger declared.

In his rambling tirade, Bollinger did raise some important questions about Iran’s human rights record and its treatment of women, homosexuals and religious minorities — all of which deserve better answers than Ahmadinejad offered — but too many of Bollinger’s barbs seemed at best, hypocritical.

Talking about one Iranian dissident, for example, Bollinger lamented that the man “does not know whether he will be charged with a crime or allowed to leave the country…”

Uh, Lee, can you say Guantanamo Bay?

At another point, Bollinger charged that Iran “leads the world in executing minors.” Of course Bollinger didn’t mention that it was only two years ago when the U.S. Supreme Court — by only the narrowest of margins (five-to-four) — finally put an end to this “cruel and unusual” form of punishment. At that point, 20 American states still had laws on their books allowing the executions of those under the age of 18.

And so it went.

“Can you tell us why Iran is fighting a proxy war in Iraq?” Bollinger demanded, repeating administration allegations that Iran support insurgents “undermining American forces in Iraq.”

The next day, the chancellors of seven Iranian universities released an open letter of rebuttal to Bollinger, inviting him to come to Iran and respond to their 10 questions, one of which included: “Why did the US support the bloodthirsty dictator Saddam Hussein during the 1980-88 Iraqi-imposed war on Iran?”

Can you say proxy war, Mr. Bollinger?

It probably goes without saying that Bollinger also parroted the Bush administration’s line that Iran’s nuclear enrichment program is just a cover for that country’s plan to build a nuclear bomb — which, to be fair, it may very well be.

“Would you stop?” he demanded rhetorically of the Iranian president. That call might have sounded slightly less hypocritical if Bollinger had coupled it with a demand that Iran’s enemy, Israel, rid itself of its equally-unconfirmed but decidedly more real cache of nuclear weapons. Or, closer to the home, that the Americans government — which has been threatening to attack Iran — live up to its commitments under the nuclear nonproliferation treaty to reduce its stockpile of weapons.

It is also intriguing to note just how selective Bollinger has been in confronting dictators.

In an article in the online edition of The Nation, Jayati Vora, a former student in Columbia’s School of Public and International Affairs, recalls attending a similar speech two years ago by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf. “As one of many Indian students at the event, I burned with questions I was dying to pose about democracy, women’s rights and peace with India,” she writes. Instead, she says, she was astounded to find on her seat a pamphlet distributed by the university stating that Musharraf had “’assumed the office of chief executive of Pakistan in October 1999.’ There was no mention of the coup through which Musharraf seized power,” Vora writes. “Not once did Bollinger refer to the military man, who had overthrown the elected government and then refused to hold elections as promised, as a dictator — a word he seemed to have no problem using to describe Ahmadinejad.”

But then, of course, Musharraf is a friend of America. And that makes all the difference in the world.

Stephen Kimber is the Rogers Communications Chair in Journalism at the University of King’s College. His column, “Kimber’s Nova Scotia,” appears in the Sunday Daily News.

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