Twenty years ago, during the first Palestinian uprising, or intifadah, I was cruising the Gaza Strip with my very brave Arab-Israeli guide Kassim, looking for trouble, when we pulled into the village of Khan Yunis for a talk with the local Muktar.

Khan Yunis is both a village and a huge refugee camp. It was then and is today a center for Islamist radicalism in Gaza. A little girl had suffocated in Khan Yunis the day before when she was trapped in a closed stairwell with a detonated tear gas grenade that had allegedly been thrown by an Israeli soldier. We were shown out of the sun into a cool, spacious receiving room. We sat on pillows and, as is the custom, were offered tea from a silver tray. As we began our conversation with the polite but angry Muktar, I became aware of a commotion.

Because Kassim was translating, I had time to listen whenever he was relating my questions in Arabic. It sounded like a mob had gathered outside the Muktar's door. Then men started slipping into the room to observe as we spoke. There was a great deal of whispering among these men, and finally, one of the newcomers approached and whispered in my host's ear. There was a brief, whispered discussion. It looked to me as though the Muktar had told the man something he did not wish to hear.

As the session progressed, Kassim managed to whisper to me that we were in trouble. It seems the grenade that caused the girl's death had been manufactured in Pennsylvania. When word spread that an American from that place was in their village, a surly mob had formed. I was spared confronting this crowd by the Muktar, who had invited me to into his home, and who under universal rules of civilized behavior was responsible for my protection. Kassim and I were treated courteously throughout, and as we left the Muktar's residence, filing past dozens of young men carrying grapefruit-size stones painted with Palestinian symbols, we were given free passage until we reached the end of the Muktar's street, at which point Kassim sped safely away from a shower of stones.

I remembered my visit to Khan Yunis and the grace under pressure of that Muktar when I watched the rude reception given Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in New York, specifically the insulting introduction by Columbia University president Lee C. Bollinger, who said his guest displayed "all the signs of a petty and cruel dictator" and described him to his face as "brazenly provocative or astonishingly uneducated."

Now, I am no fan of Ahmadinejad. I have written about him in this column and in my book Guests of the Ayatollah, where I noted his central involvement in the criminal seizure of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979. Ahmadinejad is a dangerous zealot and the public face of a ruthless and oppressive regime that has enforced its own narrow and reactionary religious rule in Iran for more than a quarter of a century. He is given to buffoonish displays of ignorant hostility toward Israel and even modern history. He is by any measure an enemy of the United States and of the most basic values of Western society.

But he was a guest. I have no problem whatsoever with the roasting Ahmadinejad took in the New York press, or the laughter that greeted his more inane remarks - welcome to a free society, Mahmoud. But there is no excuse for Bollinger's rudeness. I suspect it was intended to emphasize that an invitation to speak is not an endorsement of the speaker, but there was a bigger principle at stake. Columbia University's decision to bring Ahmadinejad to campus needed no defense. Indeed, it was a demonstration of the openness of American society, something we ought to take pride in. Bollinger's remarks turned that expression of freedom into something that looked more like an ugly stunt, and succeeded in actually making fair-minded people feel sorry for Ahmadinejad. The moment was saved from becoming a complete Ahmadinejad triumph only by his own daffy comments.

Ahmadinejad is not mad. He is a true believer, who honestly expressed the alarming beliefs and aspirations of the Iranian regime. He is not a petty dictator; he is a bulldog on the leash of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is. He is not even the country's popularly elected spokesman; Ahmadinejad won office in an election from which most reform politicians were barred. Iran's president is just the country's most public official. His predecessor, Mohammad Khatami, was by all appearances a sensible, smooth, moderate man and, as such, effectively disguised the true character of the mullahs behind him. Khatami was dangerous. Ahmadinejad is a gift to America and the Western world because every time he opens his mouth, he sets back the cause he represents. His defiant speech before the United Nations about Iran's nuclear aspirations did more to rally world support for punitive sanctions than Bush administration diplomacy has done in years.

Which is why inviting him to speak was a great idea. The more people hear what he has to say - no homosexuality in Iran, the Holocaust is a theory not a fact, Iran's nuclear pursuits are a "closed" issue - the better they understand what we are dealing with.

Why is it that we Americans seem incapable of even modest subtlety in our foreign affairs? Demonizing Ahmadinejad, aggrandizing him, inviting him and then insulting him . . . we do for him more than he could ever accomplish himself. We turn him into a popular and admired figure around the world. We make people actually feel sorry for him.