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 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. 

Mario Tama/Getty Images


Bibi's UN speech puts pressure on presidential candidates

During his speech at the U.N. General Assembly this afternoon, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu busted out a diagram of a cartoonish bomb and a red marker to indicate where he would draw a red line for taking preemptive military action against Iran's nuclear facilities. He argued that his red line would come before the third stage in acquiring a nuclear weapon: Iran enriching enough high-enriched uranium to build a bomb (according to Netanyahu, Iran is currently "well into" the second stage, and will complete this phase -- and, by extension, trigger Netanyahu's red line -- by next spring or summer "at most"):

Where should a red line be drawn? A red line should be drawn right here -- before Iran completes the second stage of nuclear enrichment necessary to make a bomb. Before Iran gets to a point where it's a few months away or a few weeks away from amassing enough enriched uranium to make a nuclear weapon. 

Whatever analysts may think about the wisdom of using such rudimentary props for such a grave topic, Netanyahu's words are still significant because the Israeli prime minister has avoided defining his red line with such specificity in the past. When NBC's David Gregory asked Netanyahu about his red line during a recent appearance on Meet the Press, for example, Netanyahu mentioned acting "before they get nuclear weapons" but then resorted to football-inspired platitudes.  "They are in the red zone," he explained. "You know, they are in the last 20 yards. And you can't let them cross that goal line. You can't let them score a touchdown."

Unless you interpret Barack Obama's pledge to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon rather liberally, the position Netanyahu staked out today appears to be at odds with the president's. Netanyahu is saying that Iran's capacity to develop a nuclear weapon in short order is unacceptable -- a stance Mitt Romney recently embraced as well (after claiming that his red line was the same as Obama's, only for the campaign to walk the statement back). But Romney hasn't offered details about where along Iran's spectrum of nuclear development he would draw his red line (an advisor told the New York Times that the candidate "would not be content with an Iran one screwdriver's turn away from a nuclear weapon"). Netanyahu, it seems, wants to intervene well before Iran's nuclear scientists reach for the screwdriver. 

In the days and weeks ahead, the indelible image of Netanyahu drawing a thick red line on his crude diagram could compel Romney to offer more specifics about his red line, and Obama to explain how and why his stance differs from the Israeli prime minister's, if at all.  

Here's the key clip from Netanyahu's speech, via BuzzFeed:

Mario Tama/Getty Images