As you are no doubt aware by now, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is in New York City this week for the United Nations General Assembly.
For those of you who haven’t been to New York City during one of these highly choreographed goat ropes, the General Assembly is basically an opportunity for all the heads of state from around the world to gather in one location and totally screw up traffic for the rest of us.
Mind you, driving in the city at any time of the year tends to be fraught with frustration and stress. Yes, I just used the word fraught. The extra special thing about General Assembly week is that all these heads of state, many of whom either hate us outright or simply talk behind our back, travel around the city in high-speed lights and sirens security convoys. While the convoys are fully prepared to take down any threat that surfaces, like a squeegee guy or the naked cowboy, the principle job is to get the important cargo to their destination quick smart.
Local, state and federal authorities manage the security for these dignitaries and spend months studying charts, maps and satellite photos in order to determine how best to tie up traffic for the general population. This is not an easy job. The idea is to close off key roads around town so that the dignitaries can race from hotel to restaurant to museum to adult DVD shops without having to deal with pesky traffic. In between the eating, schmoozing and sightseeing, occasionally a head of state (HOS, as opposed to Hoss from Bonanza) will need to get to an actual meeting really, really fast.
I like to think I’m a realist when it comes to the U.N. Really, I think it’s essentially a marginally useful institution that suffers from an overblown sense of self, endemic fraud within the organization and an outdated Security Council that does little to reflect today’s global realities. But at least it provides a forum for all those nations, big and little, that dislike America. So that’s nice.
Actually, is anyone else tired of hearing various world leaders mumble some version of "… we love Americans; it’s the American policies we hate." Okay. That’s pretty much the diplomat’s version of "… honestly, it’s not you… you’re great. It’s me."
Anytime you hear a HOS announce he loves America and the American people, it’s just the American policies that stink, you can pretty much guarantee there’ll be no consummation of the relationship. It’s time to hit the global bars and start looking for new love.
Now, I’m not one of those who suggest the U.N. should be disbanded… I just think it needs a really good scrubbing. Nor do I think we should push to relocate it. Yeah, I know, it’s irritating when world leaders and their cronies show up on our doorstep and insult us. But as Sun Tzu is often given credit for saying, (and here I’m taking some liberties) "… keep your friends close and your enemies closer. And don’t forget to brush and floss daily." He was a stickler for dental hygiene.
The point being, Sun Tzu probably didn’t say that. I believe a fella’ named Machiavelli first publically commented that you should keep a close hold on your enemies. I’d have the PWB research staff check into it, but I’ve sent them away on a team building exercise to Vegas.
Regardless, I actually think it’s useful having the U.N. on our turf. While it might make us feel clever for a minute or two, shutting the U.N. and having it relocated overseas (as is often suggested by its many detractors) would be disadvantageous to us on numerous levels.
Regardless of its problems, it remains the only viable world forum that provides a stage for all participants. You’ve got your regional clubs such as ASEAN, NATO, or my favorite, the Group of 77, which incidentally now has some 130 members. It’s just that they have several boxes of stationary still on hand with the Group of 77 logo, so why waste it by changing the name? Kind of like the G7, which is actually 8 countries. From this we can determine that the U.N. is mathematically challenged.
The thing is, all the various regional and issue-based forums have definite agendas, whereas the U.N. is for all members of the global community and really only has one agenda… spit on whomever is at the top of the food chain.
Right now, that would be us. I guarantee, whenever we’re replaced by the next bright bulb of a nation, they’ll have their turn in the barrel. It’s nature’s way. We shouldn’t feel special just because it seems like much of the U.N. constantly whines about America. One day it’ll be someone else’s turn, and maybe we can join the Group of 77 in the Greek Chorus of raspberries.
Anyway, there you are stuck in traffic somewhere near Columbus Circle, when who goes whizzing by in a high security motorcade but Ahmadinejad, off to speak at Columbia University. I won’t dwell on the irony of the NYPD and FBI working hard to provide security for the president of a country that is allowing explosives and military hardware into Iraq for the express purpose of killing U.S. soldiers. That would just be churlish. Let’s instead dwell on his presence at an American university and what he had to say.
As you know, in a highly controversial and much debated move, he was invited to speak on the campus of Columbia University. I believe it was as a participant in the university’s ongoing 2007 Crazy Despot Speaker Program. The good news is that the controversy was big enough to make us all forget about O.J. for at least a short while.
News of the invitation instantly divided people into two basic camps. On one side of the argument you had many people scratching their heads and asking how a prestigious American university could possibly provide a legitimate forum to a guy who is, uhh, lemme’ choose my words carefully here, a sympathizer, enabler and supporter of terrorism.
On the other side, you had people who supported the university’s invitation, noting that America is, after all, built on many ideals and principles, including free speech, academic freedoms and tolerance for all opinions. Of course, free speech and tolerance is always a lot easier to endorse when everybody generally agrees with each other. It can be tougher to support when the likes of Ahmadinejad want to take the podium.
I was conflicted because, while I fundamentally agree with the free speech argument and understand that Columbia, of course, has the right to invite him to speak, I was really, really aggravated about the resulting traffic jam. You gotta’ know your priorities.
I’ll admit… part of me was disgusted that we even issued this guy a limited visa for the General Assembly. We weren’t obligated to let him come in, that was just us being nice. We then momentarily entertained his request to visit Ground Zero. Thankfully that bizarre request was denied. However, there was nothing to be done about his invitation from Columbia. You can argue with the university’s judgment in making the invitation, but they’ve got good arguments as well, like it or not.
And this is where you have to love this country of ours.
Here’s a guy who rose up through the Revolutionary Guards, has presided over a very fundamentalist and repressive administration, continues and expands Iran’s support to Hezbollah, covets a nuclear weapon and leads a government that now, without question, is allowing weapons and training to be provided to elements within Iraq responsible for the killing of American soldiers.
And what do we do? We give him an opportunity to speak at one of our leading universities, not far from Ground Zero. It may really tick you off, but it’s a wondrous thing.
Even before listening to his incoherent rambling during yesterday’s speech (and believe me, as the PWB editor, I know incoherent rambling) I wasn’t concerned that his presence at the university would somehow give him legitimacy or credibility. If you’ve heard him talk in the past, you could be pretty confident he was going to maintain his seat on the crazy train. In reality, our best defense against Ahmadinejad is to make sure he always has a microphone in front of him and the cameras are rolling.
You would have to be psychotic, heavily medicated or enormously naïve to walk away from that speech thinking "… huh, seems like a reasonable and clever fellow.”
It was interesting that Columbia’s president, Lee Bollinger, opened the event by bashing Ahmadinejad soundly. Odd in that the invitation came from Columbia, but understandable given the heat the university had come under for providing the opportunity. President Bollinger appeared to want his cake and eat it too, allowing the university to say it hosted the Iranian president while also demonstrating that he’ll stand for none of Ahmadinejad’s shenanigans.
It’s an interesting strategy. Invite someone to your house for dinner, then tell them they look like crap when they show up. It was probably unnecessary, given that Ahmadinejad needed no help to make himself appear odd and just to the left of despotic. Aside from his usual refusal to acknowledge the holocaust, old news by now, he announced that there are no gays in Iran, claimed that the U.S. is sponsoring terrorist groups, failed to answer any questions put to him of any substantive nature and praised the freedoms that students and women have in today’s Iran.
It was disappointing that the moderator, a Dean from the university, appeared less like a well prepared and strong moderator and more like SpongeBob. Ahmadinejad realized quickly that he wasn’t going to be held accountable for any questions and could ramble at will. And that boy can ramble.
As an aside, it is interesting to note that the New York Times did work hard to try and present a balanced review of Ahmadinejad’s speech. While noting that he was "bewildering," they countered by saying that he was "defiant… and conciliatory" and "… offered evidence of why he is widely admired in the developing world for his defiance toward Western, especially American, power."
Maybe we were watching different speeches. My set was tuned to the crazy channel, I’m not sure who the New York Times was watching. But in one regard they’re correct… there will be those, particularly overseas, who listen to the likes of Ahmadinejad and buy into his rantings. There’s not much we can do about that.
Do we look better in the eyes of the world (not that we’re in a freakin’ beauty contest) for having displayed a willingness to listen to his opinions? I suspect the answer is yes. More importantly, does allowing a forum for all ideas, no matter how distasteful, hold true to the underpinnings of this great country? Again, I’d argue yes. That doesn’t mean we like it, but we instinctively understand it’s important as an ideal. And you can’t just hold to ideals and fundamentals when they’re convenient.
Bottomline, crazy always shows out. I think his well publicized display at Columbia served an important purpose in letting more Americans see who is at the helm of Iran and why we should be so concerned about that country’s current activities.
But that’s just my opinion. Let me know your thoughts on the best way to deal with Iran, in particular as it relates to our current situation in Iraq. Assuming nothing odd happens this coming week, and what are the chances of that, we’ll spend time next week looking at possible Iraq exit strategies being tossed about on Capitol Hill.
Till next week, stay safe.
Mike Baker served for more than 15 years as a covert field operations officer for the Central Intelligence Agency, specializing in counterterrorism, counternarcotics and counterinsurgency operations around the globe. Since leaving government service, he has been a principal in building and running several companies in the private intelligence, security and risk management sector, including most recently Prescience LLC, a global intelligence and strategy firm. He appears frequently in the media as an expert on such issues. Baker is also a partner in Classified Trash, a film and television production company. Baker serves as a script consultant and technical adviser within the entertainment industry, lending his expertise to such programs as the BBC's popular spy series "Spooks" as well as major motion pictures. In addition, Baker is a writer for a BBC drama to begin production in July 2007.