The Tough-Guy Liberal: Lee Bollinger Tries to Take on Ahmadinejad

"The Tough-Guy Liberal: Lee Bollinger Tries to Take on Ahmadinejad," Weekly Standard, 9 Oct 2007.


In his grand confrontation with the Iranian president, President Lee Bollinger of Columbia University did his best to satisfy his American critics. He was tough, not soft; he avoided euphemisms, called the man whom he was addressing a “petty and cruel dictator.” President Ahmadinejad had been invited to the Columbia World Leaders Forum, but in the event the neutral term leader was denied him, and he became the first invitee to Columbia’s World Dictators Forum. Bollinger further declared that he was meeting with the “mind of evil.” Sounds like President Bush! No liberal relativism here.

But Bollinger’s critics should not be satisfied, nor should he. Bollinger did not do so well with his toughness as he believes, and he showed a very confused understanding of free speech.

He did not seem to see why President Ahmadinejad came to Columbia. He came there to impress a world audience with a moderate but telling criticism of the United States for trying to “manage the world.” He wants to get nuclear weapons for Iran, and for this he needs to disarm and mollify doubtful or neutral powers who might oppose him.

A man who denies the Holocaust and calls for wiping Israel off the map did not need to show that he was tough. He could be moderate in Machiavellian style just by taking the edge off his toughness, just by explaining that in the spirit of inquiry one should always question conventional wisdom and that Israel would be wiped off the map by a free referendum of all Palestinians (“Jewish Palestinians, Muslim Palestinians and Christian Palestinians”). This might be enough to dissuade those many leaders and countries from acting against Iran’s nuclear ambitions who rather agree that the United States is trying to manage the world and who in any event are not eager to act. Bollinger’s invitation gave him the opportunity to complain in fairly polite terms that the United States, not Iran, is the bully. Ahmadinejad rather adeptly used Bollinger’s toughness to align him with American bullying. In a visit to Iran, Bollinger would not be subjected to such abuse, one would suppose.

Weekly Standard