Middle East studies in the News
The U.N.'s Dictator Tour, 2006
by Jacob Laskin
Not the least unfortunate aspect of the United Nations is its distressing habit of providing Third World despots with a prominent pulpit to speechify against the agency's principal sponsor: the United States. Last week was no exception, as three of worthy claimants to the title of most anti-American head of state -- Iranian's millenarian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; Venezuela's Castro protégé President Hugo Chavez; and Bolivia's Bolshevist President Evo Morales -- descended on Turtle Bay to diabolize President Bush, denounce American foreign policy, and revel in the adulation of the UN's correspondingly anti-American membership.
The results were entirely predictable. Ahmadinejad thundered against the "aggression, occupation and violation of international law" by the United States and pronounced the establishment of Israel a "tragedy;" Chavez snarled that President Bush was "the devil," derided free-market capitalism as one of the "great evils and the great tragedies" and identified the United States as the main agent of "international terrorism;" Morales, the most conciliatory of the three, raged against American efforts to inhibit the Bolivian cocaine industry as "an instrument of recolonization or colonization."
Leave it to the far-Left to cast this authoritarian rogue's gallery as goodwill ambassadors and upgrade their hate-mongering to the status of cogent commentary. No sooner had the applause died down at the UN General assembly, than left-wing pundits unveiled their own tribute: Far from demagogues with crudely anti-American agendas, they were spokesmen for the world's collective outrage at the all-too-real sins of the United States. "People who say these guys are just outliers are wrong," Mark Weisbrot, a Latin America specialist at the leftist Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) informed the Wall Street Journal. "They are saying things that many other leaders only think."
Unmentioned by the Journal was the CEPR, and Weisbrot in particular, are longtime apologists for leftist dictators, most prominently Hugo Chavez. Evidence for this charge is not wanting. When in 2003 the Chavez regime established a U.S.-based lobbying group, the Venezuela Information Office, Weisbrot instantly emerged as the effort‘s leading backer, urging the "progressive funding community" to bankroll Chavez's undisguised PR agency in the interest, of all things, of Venezuelan democracy. Weisbrot himself has been a tireless publicist for Venezuela's would-be president-for-life, having previously attacked the country's grassroots democratic opposition as "mostly managers and executives." In a 2005 article, he held up Venezuela's government as "the way democracy is supposed to work," a curious assessment of a regime that, among other infringements of civil liberties, has introduced 20-month prison sentences for the crime of "offending the authorities" and consistently rigged the electoral vote in its favor.
The CEPR was scarcely the only left-wing institution to cheer Chavez. Following his performance at the UN, Chavez paid a visit to -- where else? -- a university, specifically Cooper Union College in Manhattan. There Chavez likened the Bush administration to the Nazis, described American policies in Iraq as genocide, and urged that President Bush be brought before an international tribunal to be tried for war crimes. All of this was greeted with enthusiastic applause by the audience of professors, students, and trade union representatives, some of whom arrived outfitted in red shirts, in tribute to Chavez's signature fashion.
It was not the only stop of Chavez's propaganda tour. Chavez would also be hailed by an overflowing crowd at the devoutly left-wing Mount Olivet Baptist Church in Harlem, where he was introduced to the podium by actor cum activist Danny Glover, arguably Hollywood's most devoted encomiast of Fidel Castro. (No mean feat, as Humberto Fontova has shown.) Glover, who ardently shares Chavez's disdain for the United States -- the Lethal Weapon star believes his country to be one of "the main purveyors of violence in this world" and has likened President Bush to a slave-owner -- would not be disappointed. The Venezuelan strongman proceeded to deliver himself of a plodding disquisition on America's "devil" president -- who Chavez assured the assembled crowd "might kill me" -- complete with extended readings from Noam Chomsky's Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance. In deference to the venue, Chavez prayed "that the American people will elect a president we can negotiate with." The message evidently resonated with the crowd, which chanted, in Spanish, "Chavez, Chavez, the people are with you!" Chavez did not repeat his previously stated conviction that the "imperialist" United States had "planned and drove" the September 11 terrorist attacks to justify "aggressions" against Iraq, but it is not at all clear that it would have met with disapproval.
Chavez's close ally, President Ahmadinejad, received similarly differential treatment. Blogging at the Huffington Post, Nathan Gardels, editor of the left-leaning New Perspectives Quarterly, asserted that the Iranian leader, like Chavez, had accurately diagnosed the world's reaction to "George Bush's unilateralism" and "Anglo-Saxon dominance." "When Ahmadinejad railed against US and UK attempts to dominate the world through the Security Council as if this were the early post-WWII era instead of the 21st century it was a message that resonated globally," Gardels claimed, adding that "[i]t would be a big mistake to dismiss their comments as the ravings of mad men…" All Ahmadinejad had done, according to Gardels, was express what the "rest of the world…actually thinks."
Many on the Left agreed. Indeed, Ahmadinejad became something of an overnight celebrity among New York's liberal establishment. The venerable center-left think tank, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), invited him to attend a special question and answer session. The diplomatic gesture backfired disastrously, as Ahmadinejad took the occasion to call for "more impartial studies to be done" to determine whether the Holocaust actually occurred, defended Iran‘s "right" to enrich uranium, and chastised his hosts -- among them insurance mogul and Holocaust survivor Maurice Greenberg -- for being puppets of the Bush "government position." CFR‘s communications director, Lisa Shields, nevertheless defended the council's decision to grant Ahmadinejad yet another forum to promote his cause: "We've had Castro. We've had Arafat, and Mugabe. We've had Gerry Adams," she noted, an explanation that did not reflect nearly as well on the center as she may have supposed.
Columbia University showed only marginally more sense, canceling a planned appearance by the Iranian president, officially for lack of security. Considering Ahmadinejad's views on academic freedom -- he recently enacted a purge of liberal and secular faculty in Iranian universities as part of a campaign to bolster Islamic fundamentalism across the country -- would have put the school, which already boasts a reputation for anti-Semitism, in an awkward position. But the very fact that the school offered to play host to Tehran's theocrat speaks volumes about its priorities.
Most noteworthy is that the initial invitation was extended by Lisa Anderson, dean of the School of International and Public Affairs. Recall that in the spring of 2005, Anderson was a vigorous defender of Columbia professor Joseph Massad, her onetime graduate student, against the complaints of Jewish students that he routinely used his classroom as to inveigh against Israel. That same month Anderson signed a letter to Columbia's president, Lee Bollinger, dismissing complaints about anti-Israel professors as "the latest salvo against academic freedom at Columbia." But Ahmadinejad, according to Anderson, was a different case: "I think we ought to be open to hearing things we don't ordinarily hear and that we find objectionable," she told the New York Times.
As a relative newcomer to the America-bashing circuit, Evo Morales didn't quite attract the following of his more notorious co-speakers. He did, however, succeed in breaking American law, when he held aloft a green coca leaf, a main ingredient in cocaine production and banned in the U.S., to protest American criticisms of his country's failing anti-drug policies. In the hypocritical spirit of the occasion, Morales also lectured the United States about the need to respect laws and human rights, an amusing complaint coming from a socialist authoritarian who used revolutionary violence ascend to power and has repeatedly cracked down on independent institutions. Not coincidentally, Morales has for months been the subject of glowing profiles in left-wig periodicals. Writing in the Nation, for instance, Tom Hayden heaped praise on Morales' "anti-corporate, pro-indigenous, pro-democracy agenda."
As last week's outpouring of political support demonstrates, the notion that the likes of Morales, Chavez and Ahmadinejad represent the authentic voice of America's global victims remains, for many on the Left, too appealing to surrender. Countless failings aside, then, the U.N. at least serves the useful purpose of putting the far-Left's political sympathies in sharp perspective. Maybe there's a case to be made for it after all.Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
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