Obama Defends University's Invite to Ahmadinejad

Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama defended the right of his alma mater, Columbia University, to invite Iranian President Ahmadinejad to speak, but the Illinois senator also said that if were president of the university, he would not have made the same decision.

Obama, who received his bachelor's degree from Columbia in 1983, said, "It's not a choice I would have made, but we don't need to be fearful of the rantings of somebody like Ahmadinejad. All we need to do is just to know what our values and ideals are and be clear about what America stands for."

A fair share of criticism was directed at the Ivy League university -- from both sides of the aisle -- for the invitation it extended to the Iranian firebrand: Ahmadinejad has previously called the Holocaust "a myth" and said Israel should be "wiped off the map."

Obama said he would have denied Ahmadinejad the opportunity to speak at Columbia because he has "other forums" available to him in New York, including his address before the United Nations General Assembly.

Still, Obama continued to insist that as president, he would be willing to meet one-on-one with Ahmadinejad.

"Nothing's changed with respect to my belief that strong countries and strong presidents talk to their enemies and talk to their adversaries," Obama said. "Listening to the views, even of those whom we violently disagree with, that sends a signal to the world that we are going to turn the page on the failed diplomacy that the Bush administration has practiced for so long."

Ground Zero Tour Denied

Others in the candidate pool wasted no time chiming in to react to Ahmadinejad's speech and invitation.

Ahmadinejad had already inflamed public opinion in the United States regarding this year's General Assembly meeting when he announced his intention to visit the site where the World Trade Center buildings collapsed Sept. 11, 2001.

His request was denied by the New York Police Department, a decision that New York's leading Democrat and Republican -- Sen. Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani -- applauded.

In a statement last week, Clinton said, ""It is unacceptable for Iranian President Ahmadinejad, who refuses to renounce and end his own country's support of terrorism, to visit the site of the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil in our nation's history."

Ahmadinejad's Entry to the United States

Republican front-runner and former New York City Mayor Giuliani echoed that sentiment and said, "Under no circumstances should the NYPD or any other American authority assist President Ahmadinejad in visiting ground zero."

Today in Maine, Giuliani weighed in on Columbia's decision asking Ahmadinejad to speak "highly inappropriate."

Elsewhere in the GOP, both former Gov. Mitt Romney and former Sen. Fred Thompson blasted Columbia University for inviting Ahmadinejad and stated that, as president, both would have denied Ahmadinejad entry to the United States.

According to the U.N. Headquarters Agreement of 1947, the U.S. "shall not impose any impediments to transit," obligating the United States to allow representatives of U.N. members, or those invited on "official business," to visit the U.N. However, the government may bar entry based on national security grounds. but would have to provide specific allegations for banning Ahmadinejad.

"There are exceptions to every rule. This is our home soil," Thompson said Monday on talk radio, adding, "I wouldn't mind a little controversy at the United Nations."

"It's supposed to be a place of diversity and controversy and things of that nature. ... But they're giving rank hypocrisy a bad name," Thompson said.

Criticism of the invite from the former Massachusetts governor came via a radio ad touting Romney's refusal as governor to provide a police escort to former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami when he spoke at Harvard University, saying, "Romney called the invitation a 'disgrace.'"

Attacks on the University's Decision

California Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter pledged that if the speech went forth he would introduce legislation to cut off all federal assistance from the university. This would presumably include research and scientific grants for the sciences and medical school.

"If the left-wingers of academia will not support our troops, they, in the very least, should not support our adversaries," Hunter said in a statement accompanying a warning letter he wrote to Lee Bollinger, the president of Columbia.

Attacking Columbia's 2005 policy to keep the ROTC programs off the Columbia campus, Colorado Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo said, "Columbia University thinks it's OK to ban the U.S. military from campus while allowing a terrorist, responsible for killing dissidents in his home country and American soldiers in Iraq, to speak in their auditorium." It is quite unfortunate that this is what passes for higher education in America these days."

The Administration's Take

As for the current administration, the White House said that while the president may not have extended an invitation to Ahmadinejad to speak at Columbia, it had no problem with him being issued a visa to come to the United States to address the U.N. General Assembly.

White House press secretary Dana Perino said she wouldn't respond to every point of Ahmadinejad's speech but that "President Bush believes that the fact President Ahmadinejad is here speaking publicly shows how confident we are in our own democracy and values. What Iran's president needs to do is to act on Iran's obligations to … to stop its enrichment and reprocessing programs so that a discussion can begin on a civilian nuclear power program."

ABC News' Eloise Harper, Matt Stuart, Jake Tapper, Jan Simmonds, Christine Byun, Nitya Venkataraman, Z. Bryon Wolf and Martha Raddatz contributed to this report.