The annual United Nations General Assembly in New York has long been a magnet for world leaders great and small, so it’s hosted some performances that are memorable more for entertainment value than for their import.
The session that just concluded is no exception, having featured reggae lyrics, a lamentation about the loss of Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi and a cartoon bomb.
The most memorable moment was Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu producing a drawing of a bomb with a lighted fuse to illustrate the danger of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. “How much enriched uranium do you need for a bomb? And how close is Iran to getting it?” he asked. “Well, let me show you.”
“Netanyahu and his cartoon bomb saved this General Assembly from being a dramatic dud,” said Richard Gowan, associate director for crisis diplomacy and peace operations at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation. “Everyone secretly still misses Qaddafi at the UN: He just took crazy to another level.”
The Israeli leader’s lighted fuse, which triggered an explosion of online commentary and cable television reviews, was the latest in a long history of attention-grabbing performances on the world body’s stage.
In 1960, Fidel Castro traveled to New York for the General Assembly, meeting with African-American Muslim leader Malcolm X, plucking chickens in his hotel room in New York’s poverty-stricken Harlem, and blasting American imperialism from a lectern before a green-marble backdrop.
The bearded Cuban communist revolutionary’s marathon speech broke records and set a standard for bizarre appearances at the UN.
In 1960, the same year Castro plucked chickens, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev responded to a comparison of his country’s domination of Eastern Europe to Western imperialism by brandishing his shoe, or according to some contemporaneous accounts, banging it on his desk.
Six years ago, Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez brandished a copy of political activist and Massachusetts Institute of Technology linguistics professor Noam Chomsky’s “Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance.” (Chomsky repaid the favor last year by accusing Chavez of concentrating too much power in his hands.)
In 1974, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat showed up in a military uniform, though he did check his gun at the door, and Qaddafi tried to rip up the UN Charter in 2009.
The self-professed “King of Kings” of Africa made his debut at the UN wearing orange-colored Bedouin robes. In his first and only time addressing the General Assembly, Qaddafi showed his contempt for the world body in a 90-minute ramble, tossing a copy of its 1945 rulebook over his shoulder. Two years later, Qaddafi was on the run and pulled out of a drainage pipe by rebel forces before he came to a violent end.
The task of mourning his “tragic loss” a year ago was left this year to Zimbabwe’s 88-year-old dictator, Robert Mugabe, back at the UN in spite of his advancing years and showing few signs of slowing down.
While Netanyahu’s Iranian bomb stole the show, there were a few gems in store for those delegates awake enough to sit through 12 hours of speeches a day.
Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson-Miller paid homage to her Caribbean island’s most famous citizen, Bob Marley, by closing her address with words sung by the reggae star, who died in 1981: “One Love, One Heart.”
Another Caribbean leader compared the power dynamics in the UN to those of the animal kingdom.
“It is well-known that the lion’s view of history does not coincide with that of the gazelle or the lamb; the elephant and the ant do not see things eye-to-eye,” said Ralph E. Gonsalves of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.
Ending the General Assembly’s week of debate yesterday, North Korea’s representative said the U.S. is plotting his country’s demise, justifying its pursuit of a nuclear weapon.
“The U.S. already finalized different Korean War scenarios and it is waiting for a chance to implement them,” Deputy Foreign Minister Pak Kil Yon said, as a camera panning the audience showed a vacant seat for the American representative and two Moroccan diplomats joking among themselves.
Perhaps the biggest surprise this year was that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, at his last General Assembly before leaving office, played the lamb rather than the lion. In previous years, the Iranian president called Israel a “cancerous tumor” that had to be removed and declared the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks an inside job.
Instead, Ahmadinejad’s swan song was an ode to a new world order that touched on the Occupy Wall Street movement and digressed to “woman’s sublime role and personality, as a heavenly being, a manifestation of divine image and beauty.” He didn’t mention that in conservative Shiite Iran, women are required to conceal their beauty at all times in public.
“Ahmadinejad flopped,” Gowan said in an interview. “The chief rabble-rouser didn’t deliver on the day.”
For television crews, the General Assembly won’t be the same without the familiar mass walkouts during the Iranian leader’s annual anti-Semitic tirades. In the words of one diplomat, Ahmadinejad’s only crime this year was incoherence.
Last year, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas made headlines when he waved an application for statehood recognition from the podium. This year, Netanyahu overshadowed him as any prospect of a peace agreement continued to slip away.
Arafat’s Olive Branch
Almost four decades have passed since Yasser Arafat’s 1974 entrance at the UN. Dressed in full military uniform with his signature black-and-white checked scarf, the founder of the Palestine Liberation Organization struck a conciliatory tone when he left his pistol at the door.
“Today, I have come bearing an olive branch and freedom fighter’s gun,” he said. “Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.”
This year, the UN hosted some new faces while missing some of its cast of regulars, as European leaders such as Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel stayed home to deal with the continent’s economic crisis, Myanmar embraced democracy and the Arab world adjusted to a wave of revolts replacing the old guard.
Egypt’s new leader, Mohamed Mursi, greeted the General Assembly with: “I salute you in the name of Islam.”
Another highlight was the Myanmar prime minister’s speech saluting a former dissident, which Jeff Laurenti, a UN analyst at the Century Foundation in New York, described as “the colorless Thein Sein congratulating Aung San Suu Kyi on all the international recognition she has earned by struggling to bring down the military governments he’d been a part of.”
President Barack Obama was in town less than 24 hours. The absence of Vladimir Putin, who is once again Russia’s president, was a disappointment in terms of political theater, Gowan said.
Following Russia’s three Security Council vetoes of Western resolutions to stop the bloodshed in Syria, Gowan said, “It would have been interesting to see how he handled criticism over Syria from the Arabs and Europeans.”
Another notable absentee this year was Venezuela’s Chavez, who’s battling cancer while running for re-election.
Six years ago, the self-anointed leader of the Bolivarian Revolution gave Chomsky a sales boost when he plugged the American thinker’s book. He called U.S. President George W. Bush “el diablo” and expressed his disgust that the U.S. president had stood in the same spot a day earlier, telling the assembly that the place “still smells of sulfur.”
China and Japan, usually not among the more theatrical UN members, supplied some drama on Sept. 27 as they fought into the night on a deserted UN stage over ownership of some barren islands in the East China Sea.
Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi kicked off the verbal duel when he took the floor after 9 p.m. and accused Japan of theft: “They can in no way change the historical fact that Japan stole Diaoyu Dao and its affiliated islands from China.”
With the North Korean and Cuban leaders no-shows, the latest country to join the ranks of shunned speakers at the tail end of this year’s General Assembly is Syria, whose 18-month rebellion against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime was a dominant theme of the UN’s summit.
Speaking to a largely empty room, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Muallem attacked the U.S. and its Arab and European allies who, he said, “support terrorism in my country.” He said, “Under the pretext of humanitarian intervention, these countries interfere in the domestic affairs of states.”
Indeed, the star of the show this year may have been the UN secretary general, a man better known for trying to extinguish fires than for lighting them.
“The fact that Ban Ki-moon was generally praised for giving a strong and provocative speech tells you something about how dull a lot of the rest of the speeches must have been,” Gowan said in an e-mail.