Connect to share and comment

Political theater at the UN

Obama offers lofty speech while Gadhafi and Ahmadinejad rail against American dominance.

Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi gestures during his address at the 64th United Nations General Assembly at the U.N. headquarters in New York, Sept. 23, 2009. Gaddafi, in his first ever address to the United Nations, on Wednesday accused the veto-wielding powers of the Security Council of betraying the principles of the U.N. charter. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

UNITED NATIONS — The political theater at the U.N. on Wednesday ranged from realism to the absurd in three acts as President Barack Obama’s bid to present a new American face to the world ran into Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Obama tried to sell a new, caring America that takes other nations’ interests into account, while Gadhafi and Ahmadinejad stood as tall reminders of just how much suspicion of America there is to overcome.

Obama and Gadhafi made their debuts on the General Assembly stage. Ahmandinejad made a repeat performance, thanks to his tainted re-election back home.

The American president stirred delegates from 192 nations with a lofty speech, executed with his now trademark flourishes. It was aimed at pleasing a largely anti-Bush administration crowd by putting as much rhetorical daylight between himself and the previous president as possible.

“I took office at a time when many around the world had come to view America with skepticism and distrust,” Obama said. “Part of this was due to opposition to specific policies, and a belief that on certain critical issues, America has acted unilaterally, without regard for the interests of others.” But he cautioned the world against “misperceptions and misinformation” that have “fed an almost reflexive anti-Americanism.” He was already changing things, he said.

Obama was applauded for prohibiting torture on his first day in office, for ordering the closure of Guantanamo and for vowing to extract all U.S. combat troops from Iraq by 2011. But said he wouldn’t apologize for pursing American interests, including prosecuting a war in Afghanistan against the Taliban.

The audience was pleased when he said the U.S. had paid its U.N. bills and when he called for a Middle East settlement that “ends the occupation that began in 1967.” Apparently it was the first time an American president had called it an occupation.

The climate, the economy and nuclear proliferation can only be solved collectively, Obama said in a major departure from Bush. “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,” he said.

The president was escorted from the podium into a small room behind the General Assembly speakers’ platform where the next speaker normally waits. On deck was Gadhafi.

But the Libyan leader had been sitting in the audience all along listening to Obama. And there he sat for 10 minutes, as many delegates rushed to greet Obama, causing an awkward pause, before Gadhafi sauntered onto the stage to launch a 96-minute, one-man show.