Great moments in U.N. prop use

There are two schools of thought emerging about Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bizarre stunt of drawing a literal “red line” through a cartoon bomb in this UNGA speech today. On the one hand, he may have “turned a serious issue into a joke.” On the other hand, he has also “guaranteed he gets the ...

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy.
Mario Tama/Getty Images
Mario Tama/Getty Images
Mario Tama/Getty Images

There are two schools of thought emerging about Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's bizarre stunt of drawing a literal "red line" through a cartoon bomb in this UNGA speech today. On the one hand, he may have "turned a serious issue into a joke." On the other hand, he has also "guaranteed he gets the front page photo from the UN tomorrow."

Prop use is rare in the protocol obsessed world of the U.N., but it has also led to some of the most memorable moments in the body's history: 

The bug in the beak: 

There are two schools of thought emerging about Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bizarre stunt of drawing a literal “red line” through a cartoon bomb in this UNGA speech today. On the one hand, he may have “turned a serious issue into a joke.” On the other hand, he has also “guaranteed he gets the front page photo from the UN tomorrow.”

Prop use is rare in the protocol obsessed world of the U.N., but it has also led to some of the most memorable moments in the body’s history: 

The bug in the beak: 

During a debate over the shooting down of an American U-2 spy plane over Soviet territory on May 20th 1960, U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge took out a wooden seal that had been presented to the U.S. embassy in Moscow by the Soviet-American Friendship Society and then extracted a tiny microphone out of the eagle’s beak with a pair of tweezers. “It so happens that I have here today a concrete example of Soviet espionage so that you can see for yourself,” he said. 

Stevenson’s photo show

The 1962 speech in which U.S. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson presented evidence of a Soviet missile build-up in Cuba was one of the most memorable in U.N. history, including the moment when he asked Soviet representative Valerian Zorin whether the missiles were being installed and famously demanded, “Don’t wait for the translation—yes or no?” Stevenson went to present photographic evidence of the missile build-up. ” I am prepared to wait for my answer until hell freezes over, if that’s your decision,” he said. After that exchange, Stevenson went on to present photos showing the missile installations, concluding, “I doubt if anyone in this room, except possibly the representative of the Soviet Union, has any doubt about the facts.”

Powell brings the anthrax

Delegates were thrown for a loop on Feb. 5, 2003, when U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell brought out a replica vial of “anthrax” when presenting evidence of Iraq’s nuclear weapons program. “Less than a teaspoon of dry anthrax, a little bit about this amount … shut down the United States Senate in the fall of 2001,” Powell said, continuing to claim that “UNSCOM estimates that Saddam Hussein could have produced 25,000 liters. If concentrated into this dry form, this amount would be enough to fill tens upon tens upon tens of thousands of teaspoons.” It turned out, after the invasion of Iraq, that reports of Saddam Hussein’s WMD program were false and Powell later described the speech as a permanent “blot” on his record. 

The Hugo Chavez book club

Venezuela’s firebrand president likes to recommend books, handing Barack Obama a copy of Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America for instance. But his most famous moment in book promotion came in 2006, when he held up a paperback copy of U.S. linguist and activist Noam Chomsky’s “Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance” during his UNGA speech, calling it an “excellent book to help us understand what has been happening in the world throughout the 20th century.” The plug sent the book’s Amazon sales skyrocketing. Don’t expect any more Chomsky tomes to show up on the Hugo Chavez reading list however. The left-wing MIT professor accused Chavez of an “assault on democracy”  last year. 

Morales chews coca

During a 2009 meeting of the U.N. Committee on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna, Bolivian President Evo Morales — himself a coca famer and head of the country’s coca growers union — began chewing a coca leaf during a speech arguing for its legalization. “This is a coca leaf. This is not cocaine,” Morales said. “This represents the culture of indigenous people of the Andean region.” He held up a leaf again at a U.N. meeting in March of this year. 

Qaddafi throws the book 

The late Libyan leader made his one and only appearance a the UNGA a memorable in 2009, uncorking an epic 90-minute speech, which included a descrption of the Security Council as a 
“terror council,” a defense of the Taliban, and calls to reopen the investigation into the Kennedy assasination. At one point, accusing western powers of disrespecting the U.N. charter, he held up a copy of the document, seemed to tear it, and then threw it off the podium. 

Judging from the attention it’s already received, Bibi’s bomb seems likely to join the list. 

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

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