Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was the most visible dignitary to address the United Nations this week. Columbia University Professor Edward Luck explains that Ahmadinejad is part of a long list of demagogues who have turned their U.N. address into a theatrical production.
BOB GARFIELD: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was the most visible of the dignitaries in Manhattan this week to attend the United Nations General Assembly. He was invited to speak at Columbia University, where he was called "a petty dictator" by Columbia President Lee Bollinger. He was denied a visit to Ground Zero and he was defiant at the U.N. All in a few days work for the Iranian President, who, with his signature jackets, ubiquitous grin and fiery rhetoric, worked the media at every available podium.
Dr. Edward Luck directs the Center on International Organization at Columbia University, and he explains that Ahmadinejad is not the first to turn his U.S. address into a theatrical production. DR. EDWARD LUCK: One thinks back, obviously, of Khrushchev banging his shoe on the podium when he didn't like what he was hearing — [CLIP]: [KHRUSHCHEV BANGS SHOE ON PODIUM/SHOUTS IN RUSSIAN] [END CLIP] DR. EDWARD LUCK: Several times Castro has been there, Arafat came with both a hat and a holster — debated as to whether he actually had a pistol in that holster or not — Che Guevara, we've had Daniel Ortega.
We've had a lot of quite fiery characters and, of course, last year we had Hugo Chavez with his comments about the place smelling like the devil had just been there, since Bush had just spoken. [CLIP]: HUGO CHAVEZ [SPEAKING IN SPANISH] [ENGLISH, TRANSLATED FROM SPANISH]: The devil came here yesterday. Yesterday the devil was here. [END CLIP] DR. EDWARD LUCK: The U.N. is like the flame before the moth. I mean, it's irresistible. Where else do you get 191 other member states lined up to listen to you, and you can — really, you know, if you want to talk about this issue, that issue, the other issues — there's no rebuttal.
No one's going to question what you said, and it looks like you're the equal of any other leader. You pay your dues and you can go there and say what you want to say. BOB GARFIELD: Ahmadinejad seemed to genuinely relish his opportunity. He was quite animated and even when getting laughed at and booed, he maintained his equanimity. Is the history of demagogues at the U.N. one of equivalent showmanship? DR. EDWARD LUCK: I think in some ways. They know that it may not be a completely friendly forum, but I think they want to prove that they're on the same level as their critics, and who knows, you know, if they're in societies in which they're not getting very straight feedback from the public or from the media or others because of a lack of freedom, they may actually think, that, in fact, whatever they have to say is brilliant or very persuasive or whatever, and they may not quite understand. BOB GARFIELD: There are obviously risks attendant to speaking at the U.N. in confrontational ways. You can become an object of ridicule or you can become a kind of caricature of tyranny, the way Khrushchev did, and in the case of Chavez, you can actually undercut your clout within the United Nations General Assembly itself.
But to your way of thinking, are these presentations really for international consumption, so much as they are for a domestic audience?
DR. EDWARD LUCK: Certainly when American presidents go to the U.N. they tend to be aiming first and foremost at a domestic audience. And I think it's true for many of these groups as well. And you saw the Iranian response to Ahmadinejad in the way he was treated, particularly at Columbia.
But I think there was also an international audience of trying to say that, you know, he's totally innocent and these charges about trying to acquire nuclear weapons or human rights violations and others are very much trumped up, that this, in fact, is a western assault on Islamic values. In some ways the way he was treated at Columbia sort of fed into that. BOB GARFIELD: Ahmadinejad's visit was pretty much a prolonged media circus. Most of the coverage that I read has been — well, skeptical, to say the least — and in some cases, actually mocking. But was he in a no lose situation with respect to the media? I mean, if they're sympathetic to him or respectful, he gains standing, and if they're harsh on him, he gets to go back and say, you see, the conspiracy is alive and well. DR. EDWARD LUCK: Well, you know, I think in essence, if he gets attention, he's won the game. In that sense I think you're right. It's a no lose situation. When he loses is if no one pays attention. BOB GARFIELD: But I'm wondering what the media are to do in a case like this. Yes, he's a demagogue and to the extent that you give him coverage, you're only serving his purposes. But on the other hand, can he be ignored? DR. EDWARD LUCK: I think he can be minimized. You know, I mean it is striking, that same day there was a summit conference at the U.N. on climate change — got very little media attention. You know, he comes up to Columbia and then he says some stupid things, which were probably quite predictable — it gets enormous press coverage.
I mean, the press has a choice. Why do they all have to cover the same story and basically say more or less the same thing? You know, I hope there will be some reflection about why do we give center stage to these people. BOB GARFIELD: Ed, thank you so much. DR. EDWARD LUCK: Thank you. BOB GARFIELD: Dr. Edward Luck directs the Center on International Organization at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]