- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 24, 2006

The high and mighty

The secretary-general of the United Nations always hosts a luncheon for world leaders and their senior minister on the first day of the General Assembly, a carefully timed and organized event at which the most powerful people in the world break bread between their speeches.

It’s a chance for world leaders to chat comfortably with others at their table or fiddle with their cell phones if they are disappointed. U.N. protocol can’t give everyone a good table, but they do make sure George W. Bush is never seated next to colleagues from the axes of evil or impertinence.

As usual, President Bush sat to the right of Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Departing Mexican President Vicente Fox, an old friend, was on Mr. Bush’s right. Others at the table included leaders from Bahrain, France, Ghana, Jordan, Liberia, Malaysia and Poland.

In what is surely an apt coincidence, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was seated next to Peter MacKay, the handsome Canadian foreign minister. Would-be matchmakers have noted their relative youth and availability , although neither seemed very interested.

The annual luncheon must be a small working luxury or a dreadful bore for presidents and prime ministers. Although some may feel lost without the spotlight, it must be delightful for other world leaders to relax in a sea of the similarly high powered, to be anonymous, unquotable, just another guest tucking into veal medallions with fois gras, roasted potatoes and baby zucchini.

Only two no-shows

Of course it’s business, but the lunch also includes a rare opportunity to melt into the crowd of similarly important people. The only leaders who did not come were Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is said to have shunned the luncheon because wine was served, and Thailand’s Thaksin Shinawatra, who had been deposed that morning in a coup d’etat.

Mr. Thaksin’s empty chair next to Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe — himself a candidate for tanks in the night — surely set off a shiver of fear among powerful men who have entertained that nightmare.

By the way, the tables are always round at these events because with so many VIPs, there can be no “head” of the table. In the arcana of protocol, only the junior ministers sit below the salt. Round tables allow everyone to be their own VIP. And event planners can squeeze in more people at the last minute.

‘Debate’ continues

The General Assembly continues this week, mostly at the foreign-minister level, with considerably less tension and fewer security restrictions. Highlights include rare public addresses from North Korea and Burma.

Readers concerned about climate change will be glad to hear that former Vice President Al Gore has been invited to give the next lecture in the secretary-general’s lecture series on Thursday evening. He will discuss global warming.

Words, some props

The General Assembly is all about the richness and texture of words, with world leaders relying on oratory to make their points.

But some can’t resist the lure of a prop or two. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat had his gun, and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, his shoe. Bolivia’s President Evo Morales brandished a small green coco leaf from the podium last Tuesday to protest its criminalization by wealthy countries with drug problems.

And Hugo Chavez, the outspoken president of Venezuela, waved Noam Chomsky’s 2004 book “Hegemony or Survival,” a leftish critique of the Bush administration’s foreign policy, exhorting Americans to read it.

Betsy Pisik can be reached by e-mail at bpisik@washingtontimes.com.

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