Weekly Briefing on Israeli and Middle Eastern Affairs
September 26, 2007
What would have happened if, as Dean John H. Coatsworth of Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs suggested, Adolf Hitler had indeed been invited to "engage in dialogue" with the students of Columbia University, say, in 1937? It is safe to surmise that, perhaps to the surprise of some, he would not have gone into a tirade about the need to gas the Jews, or to turn Europe into a slave camp for the inferior races living under German mastery (which, of course, even then, would have riled his civilized audience). In all likelihood, he would have struck chords of public sympathy by raising two basic human values of great resonance:
- Self-determination, and in his case, the right of honest Germans, with a language and historical identity of their own that unites them with their brothers across borders, to realize President Woodrow Wilson's promise and live within their fatherland-rather than in an artificial Austrian state, or under Czechoslovakian or Polish sovereignty;
- Peace-in other words, the right of the peoples of continental Europe to sort out their own "natural" future, free of meddling by Bolsheviks in Moscow and suspicious business interests in London and New York (who all work-wink, wink-for you-know-who). Why should young Americans waste their lives on resisting the legitimate course of history?
He would have been applauded, one assumes, more than once-and would have gone home ever more confident that the world would not really resist his designs for Europe or for the Jews. This is not simply an exercise in historical "what if"-nor is it so far-fetched: A careful reading of the speech by the president of Iran before the UN General Assembly this week marks it as the first time a veiled defense of the Nazi version of history was put before an institution that was originally forged out of the fight against Hitler. A deeper look into this abyss actually offers an insight into some of the burning questions of today: What's wrong with "dialogue?" Why should a man like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad be barred from speaking at Columbia or the UN? And why, for that matter, is it wrong and dangerous for the International Atomic Energy Agency leadership to suggest that Iran should be given more (and more) time to sort out its dispute with the international community over its nuclear program?
Amnon Rubenstein, one of Israel's leading liberal lights on constitutional law, a former minister of education, and most recently, a budding novelist-and at the moment, a visiting professor at Columbia-wrote a bitter letter to his colleagues this week about hosting a man who seeks to wipe him, his family, and his country off the map. Coatsworth's comment, he said, takes the issue beyond the limits of rational discussion. And yet, perhaps it does not: An example that Rubenstein himself gives allows us to offer a rational explanation as to why "free speech for Hitler" would have been catastrophic, and not only from a moral point of view. Rubenstein mentions in his letter the famous debate at the Oxford University Student's Union in 1936, in which the majority-still bearing the scars of the searing bloodshed of World War I-supported the proposition that they would never again bear arms for king and country. Hitler heard of the vote, and then saw this proposition tested during the Munich crisis. We know what happened next: Many of the very same Oxford students fought, often with uncommon valor, in a war that could have been easily avoided had Britain been ready to stand firm and fight when it was not yet too late.
Therein lies the relevant lesson. The reason Munich was such a vast tragedy is that we now know for certain that had London and Paris threatened war, rather than seek appeasement, Moscow would have joined the front; the strong Czech army would have been part of the equation-and the German High Command, which had already prepared plans for a coup, would have overthrown the mad fuehrer who was about to drag them into a military disaster. Instead, Czechoslovakia was sacrificed; Moscow cut a deal over Poland's dead body; and the German generals concluded that they were obeying a genius, not a madman.
Similar dynamics underlie the present crisis. Many in Iran-as will be obvious to all who read carefully the fierce internal debates there-have come to wonder whether the fanatical Mahdist fantasy driving Ahmadinejad and his guru, Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi, is not about to bring an economic and perhaps military disaster upon their country. They may even be within reach of convincing the powers that be-after all, the ultimate decisions are made not by the president, but by the "supreme leader," Ali Khamene'i, and the men around him-that some form of compromise over the key issue, namely, the ongoing effort to enrich uranium at the facilities in Natanz, may be necessary to allay the anger of the world. (They might argue not for an end to the weapon program, perhaps, but for a real, verifiable delay.) Yet Ahmadinejad effectively counters with a line not unlike that of Hitler back then: Wait and see. The enemy is soft. They recognize the legitimacy of our position, and they will not fight. Give me time, and we shall emerge victorious from this time of testing.
Leave aside, therefore, the moral outrage, or the sheer feeling of physical disgust at what happened. Still within the realm of the rational, an argument can and should and even must be made that this week's performances in New York weakened the resolve of those within Iran who seek to reverse the present course; and it may have also blunted the sharp message recently conveyed by the French foreign minister, namely, that unless Iran does change its thrust, war will be inevitable. Others in the international community are watching this test: Germany, Russia, China, and Turkey all have major business and strategic interests in Iran that they would abandon only under duress. Unless such imminent duress is indeed felt, they will not act-making war, paradoxically, ever more likely. In much the same way as a forum for Hitler would have hastened the rise of his ambitions-and the terrible ordeal they imposed upon the world-so, perhaps, did Columbia's conduct vis-à-vis the Iranian president. True, Ahmadinejad did manage to shame his own cause with bold-faced and, at times, ridiculous lies. ("We do not have gays in Iran." Sure, they hang them in public.) The man is in some ways an asset to those who need to explain to the world why the present regime in Tehran is so dangerous. But the pertinent question-with all due respect to the needs of academic enlightenment-is not what the students of Columbia learned from him, but what he, his camp, and their rivals in the Iranian power struggle have learned about the world.
Diplomatic nicety is not always wrong. It was Winston Churchill who said, after having sent a very polite message ("Your Obedient Servant," etc.) to the Japanese ambassador on December 8, 1941, to inform him that "a state of war exists between our two countries," that "[s]ome people did not like this ceremonial style. But after all when you have to kill a man, it costs nothing to be polite" (The Second World War, Volume Three, page 480). But Churchill enjoyed the clarity of what he was about to do. I wish we did.