What's the difference between character and statecraft? This is a question that apparently never crossed the mind of historian Rick Perlstein, who wrote an interesting but badly mistaken piece comparing Nikita Krushchev's visit in 1959 to this week's visit by the president of Iran.
Let me put before you an illustrative example: one week in September of 1959, when, much like one week in September of 2007, American soil supported a visit by what many, if not most Americans agreed was the most evil and dangerous man on the planet.
Perlstein suggests that the respectful welcome granted to Krushchev pointed to a confident, mature American character; whereas the rude reception given Ahmadinajad at Columbia was the mark of immaturity. To be specific, he thinks the immaturity comes from the fact that American character has been damaged by years of "conservative rule," which he says is "rewiring our hearts and minds" in bad ways.
Given that hypothesis, I would have liked to have seen some evidence that conservatives exercise some sort of rule at Columbia. It's beside the point, however, since the analogy is even more deeply flawed than that: the reception of Kruschev was an act of the United States government, whereas the business at Columbia was an act of a private entity. The actual US government reception was to ignore the visit as much as possible, so much so that Bush played down the Iranian issue in his own speech at the United Nations.
How to explain the difference in Krushchev's reception and the current one? It isn't a question of character, but statecraft. In 1959, the United States was aware that the Soviet Union was increasingly powerful, and not going anywhere. There was no choice but engagement. Krushchev got the full reception because the whole point of his visit was to engage him. We wanted to talk to him, and we wanted to do so with all the diplomatic formalities that smooth the process.
In the current case, the strategy is to avoid doing anything that might legitimize the Iranian president, or increase his base of support within his own country. His government is not popular with its citizens, and it is in our national interest not to do anything to make them seem more powerful or legitimate. It's noteworthy that Bush's speech at the UN went on about Zimbabwe and Myanmar, but had fairly little to say about Iran -- at least, directly.
The visit to Columbia, far from being part of the plan, was not welcome because it gave him more attention on the world stage. I'd say it went about as well as it might have, and in any event, America is a free country whose citizens are not bound by the desires of their government. That said, the Columbia visit wasn't part of the State Department's vision.
It ought to be fairly obvious that diplomacy is driven by the statecraft aims of a given administration, rather than by our "national character" at large; for that matter, it ought to be relatively clear that whatever "rule" conservatives may exercise in America, they exercise little at Columbia. Perlstein accuses his country of "bed wetting" at the spectre of having a bad man visit; but really, America was content to ignore him. It was Columbia that wanted to give him a platform, and it was their administration that chose to be rude to him. Neither the American character in general, nor conservatives in particular, had much to do with it.