Listening to speeches given before the UN General Assembly last week by Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, one is reminded of songwriter Stephen Sondheim’s 1973 hit “Send in the Clowns.” As Sondheim explained about his song, its title referred not to circus clowns but, rather, to “fools.” It is an appropriate context as well for the appearance made by these three leaders at the UN. Unfortunately, listening to President Obama’s speech did little to dispel the song title’s applicability to him too.
With dictator Gaddafi, kakistocrat Ahmadinejad and aspiring dictator Chavez, UN delegates were subjected to hours of rambling babble. It must be a trait of ruthless leaders — they believe the power they have misappropriated from their own people empowers them to submit others to endless diatribes by which they seek to impart their myopic world view.
On Wednesday, Colonel Gaddafi made his first UN appearance, being introduced, as is his wont, as “the king of kings.” He ranted for over an hour and a half, wearing out two translators attempting to make as much sense as possible out of what was being said. His ramblings included a claim US drug companies invented the swine flu to create a market for their vaccines, to demands for investigations into all the wars and assassinations that have occurred since the UN’s founding. Incredulously, he went on to further suggest a Talabanized Afghanistan religious state poses no more of a threat than that posed by another religious state — the Vatican.
A few hours later, Ahmadinejad spoke, making his fifth appearance before the UN and his first since the June 12th election riots over his theft of the electorate’s vote. He detonated a verbal grenade days before repeating his statement that the Holocaust was a lie. With duplicitous grandeur, Ahmadinejad announced out of one side of his mouth he was proud his statement had enraged the West and out of the other side that he was departing for the UN with a message of “peace and friendship.”
At the UN, Ahmadinejad’s diatribe included rants about Jewish domination in the world and about Iran going through “a glorious and fully democratic election” in which voters had “entrusted me once more with a large majority,” apparently opting to ignore the rioting that took place just days before his departure for the UN. As Ahmadinejad spewed out hatred, many foreign diplomats walked out in protest. Unfazed by the sight of a near empty chamber, Ahmadinejad continued.
On Thursday, Chavez took center stage. His ramblings took him from praising the Bolivarian revolution which he started in Venezuela, to vocalizing a hair-brained idea about creating “an international city with its own sovereignty, with its own strength and morality to represent all nations of the world,” to noting President Obama’s presence at the UN replaced the “smell of sulfur” (a reference to his 2006 comment at the UN about President Bush being the devil) with the “smell of hope” (just what does hope smell like?), to denouncing capitalism as a chief cause of global climate changes. The almost hour long speech also urged Obama to “come over to the socialist side.” (which, at this point, would not be a long walk).
President Obama gave his first speech to the UN General Assembly, speaking just before Gaddafi, delivering a challenge that the body faces irrelevance if it is unable effectively to act against outlaw states. He was well received by the assembled, delivering a 37 minute speech to a packed chamber.
Distancing himself from the previous US administration’s unilateral approach to tackling international problems, Obama acknowledged the world has changed and such problems now must be resolved within the context of a “new era of engagement…Those who used to chastise America for acting alone in the world cannot now stand by and wait for America to solve the world’s problems alone.”
Obama’s speech was uplifting for many listeners. But, it was the above remarks of the speakers who followed Obama to the podium — remarks bordering on the absurd — that should give rational people pause to ask if engagement with such irrational leaders is, in itself, rational.
On Thursday, for the first time since the UN’s founding, a US president chaired the UN Security Council. In a well-planned move, the first order of business for Obama was to call for a vote on a resolution aimed at strengthening the Non-Proliferation Treaty by nations with nuclear weapons taking on the responsibility to move toward disarmament and those without to forsake them. Much like Iran’s recent presidential election, the outcome was known before the first vote was cast. Obama had obtained assurances ahead of time from all 15 Security Council members they would support the kumbaya resolution.
The Security Council vote was a no-brainer, as meaningless as it was easy. But Obama’s challenge for UN members to cooperate or face irrelevance had already fallen on deaf ears. While one Security Council member, Russia, had hinted at support for harsher sanctions against Iran, another, China, indicated it would not — a decision undoubtedly influenced by its strong trade relationship with Tehran. A further indication Chinese cooperation would not be forthcoming came even before the Security Council vote, after US and Indian companies had stopped selling gasoline to Iran only to have China (and Venezuela) pick up the slack — today meeting a third of Tehran’s daily gasoline requirements. Such lack of cooperation will absolutely remove any motivation for Iran to stop its uranium enrichment program — a program now known to involve a second major facility beyond the one at Natanz.
Chavez did make one irrefutable point in his speech. Criticizing UN inaction over the years, he said, “This UN does not work.” It is a lesson our young, inexperienced president will learn as his efforts to seek engagement with our enemies and cooperation from our UN counterparts fails miserably. He will learn it is dangerous to tether US security to UN action. Perhaps then the American people will come to the same realization about the Obama Administration’s leadership that Sondheim does towards the end of his song. The final demand to “Send in the clowns” is met just as quickly with the stark realization, “Don’t bother they’re here.”