Making Room for Mahmoud

Posted: Oct 12, 2007 10:56 AM
Making Room for Mahmoud

Question: Who’s more welcome on an Ivy League campus -- a Middle Eastern autocrat who actively opposes American interests? Or a patriotic teenager who hopes to serve our country as a military officer?

Answer: the autocrat.

On Sept. 24, Columbia University welcomed Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He was in town for meetings at the United Nations (a popular forum for dictators), so he dropped by the school to address faculty and students.

Yet Columbia students who aspire to become officers through the Reserve Officers Training Corps remain unwelcome on campus. The school banned ROTC in 1969, during the height of the debate over the Vietnam War. Cadets must travel across New York City to Manhattan College to serve their country.

Columbia’s president, Lee Bollinger, defended the decision to invite Ahmadinejad. “What is at stake is the ability to learn about the world and know about people, even dictators, even people who are highly repressive and highly dangerous,” he told ABC News.

Ahmadinejad, though, hardly lacks a soapbox. He addressed the United Nations and can speak to his country’s assembly any time. In fact, his belligerent take on certain issues was well known even before he came to Columbia.

For example, Ahmadinejad has declared that “Israel must be wiped off the map.” He calls the Holocaust “a myth.” And he insists that Iran will acquire a nuclear capability, whether the West approves or not. “We believe that atomic energy is a blessing given by God,” he says -- a blessing he vows to share: “Iran is ready to transfer nuclear know-how to the Islamic countries due to their need.” As if that rhetoric wasn’t enough, American generals say Iran is actively arming our enemies in Iraq.

So why allow Ahmadinejad to speak at Columbia?

Still, this controversy may end up being valuable if it reopens the debate over whether ROTC should be allowed on campus. It’s past time to put Vietnam behind us and recognize that today’s military is made up entirely of volunteers. Nobody’s forced to join ROTC. People do so because they want to serve their country.

As President Bush put it during an ROTC commissioning ceremony back in May, “surely the concept of diversity is large enough to embrace one of the most diverse institutions [the military] in American life. It should not be hard for our great schools of learning to find room to honor the service of men and women who are standing up to defend the freedoms that make the work of our universities possible.”

Sadly, though, Columbia is no defender of free speech. That was all too apparent last year, when students stormed the stage to prevent Jim Gilchrist from speaking.

Gilchrist founded the Minuteman, a group of patriotic citizens who’ve taken it upon themselves to patrol our country’s border with Mexico. It’s fine for students to disagree with Gilchrist, but they should have at least had the courtesy to hear him out.

Instead they forced him to leave. As student Ryan Fukumori told the New York Sun, Gilchrist has “no right to be able to speak here.” And Ahmadinejad does? Please.

Columbia has a proud history of supporting our military. Alexander Hamilton went there before serving as General Washington’s right-hand man. When he left the Army, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower served as president of Columbia. Yet it’s impossible to imagine Ike sharing the stage with Ahmadinejad, or serving at an institution that bans ROTC.

We need to return to the days when schools taught and trained young leaders -- and when schools that spurn our military didn’t welcome tyrants with open arms.