There is nothing mysterious about George Bush when he comes to the annual General Assembly of the United Nations. He comes, he excoriates countries he doesn’t care for and he leaves. Everyone knows the routine and while some other world leaders may spit his name, they sure know how to pronounce it.
But the President, who used his appearance at the podium yesterday to call for a “mission of liberation” to bring democracy and human rights to countries under dictatorship or repressive rule, needs a little help in this regard.
Heaven forefend that he mangles the names of Sarkozy, say, or Mugabe. We know this thanks to a snafu by the White House staff who mistakenly allowed a few journalists to glimpse a draft of the President’s address complete with phonetic spellings in brackets to assist him with names of people and places. In the correct version for the press, they had been erased.
Safe from Mr Bush’s famously dyslexic tongue, therefore, were the Presidents of France [sar-KO-zee] and Zimbabwe (moo-GAH-bee]. The speech-writers, whose names and even telephone numbers were also posted at the end of the wrongly circulated version, also helped him with the capitals of Zimbabwe [hah-RAR-ray] and of Venezuela [kah-RAH-kus].
Yet, Mr Bush was sometimes left to his own instincts. While prompts were provided for Kyrgyzstan [KEY-geez-stan] and Mauritania [moor-EH-tain-ee-a], he was offered no such help with Sierra Leone or with Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader in Burma. He made two runs at the latter and mangled the former, seemingly renaming it Syria Leone. (A member of his axis of evil, surely.)
Cuba he got right and it was the Cubans who provided still more distraction yesterday when its entire delegation upped and walked out of the General Assembly hall midway through Mr Bush’s speech. This after Mr Bush suggested, referring to the ailing Fidel Castro, that, “the long rule of a cruel dictator is nearing its end. The Cuban people are ready for their freedom.”
In a statement, the Cuban government last night said its boycott was a “sign of profound rejection of the arrogant and mediocre statement” delivered by the American President. “Bush is responsible for the murder of over 600,000 civilians in Iraq… He is a criminal and has no moral authority or credibility to judge any other country.” It concluded: “Cuba condemns and rejects every letter of his infamous tirade.”
Expressions of disdain for Mr Bush by other leaders have become an annual sideshow of the UN Assembly. Last year it was Hugo Chavez of Venezuela who achieved the greatest theatrics saying he could smell sulphur at the podium where Mr Bush had spoken hours before, thus likening him to Satan.
Mr Chavez announced at the last minute yesterday that he would be skipping the Assembly this year where he was scheduled to speak today. So there will be no Bush-Chavez spectacular. The starring role this time may be seized by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran.
Mr Mugabe will have his chance to respond tomorrow when he is scheduled at the podium. Mr Bush said that his government “has cracked down on peaceful calls for reform and forced millions to flee their homeland”. He went on: “The behaviour of the Mugabe regime is an assault on its people.”
Mr Ahmadinejad has used his visit to the New York to underscore Iran’s determination to stand-up to pressure from most of the international community for a suspension of its uranium enrichment activities. But it was unclear how far he had furthered his cause with his appearance at Columbia University on Monday where he was labeled a “petty and cruel dictator” by his hosts and went on to cause bafflement, and even bursts of laughter, when he flatly suggested that there are “no homosexuals in Iran”.
President’s crib notes
* Kyrgyzstan, KEYR-geez-stan
* Mauritania, moor-EH-tain-ee-a
* Mugabe, moo-GAH-bee
* Harare, hah-RAR-ray
* Sarkozy, sar-KO-zee
* Caracas, kah-RAH-kus