Not since Khrushchev took off his shoe and pounded the table has there been a U.N. General Assembly conclave to rival this one.
"(T)he devil came here yesterday. ... Right here ... talking as if he owned the world," ranted Hugo Chavez, crossing himself. "And it smells of sulfur still today." Chavez was talking about President Bush
The Venezuelan president began his address by holding up a copy of Noam Chomsky's "Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance." Ever since, it has soared on Amazon.com.
Chavez spoke the morning after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who had opened with a prayer for an early reappearance of the Twelfth Imam, whom the Iranian president is said to believe will return in two years. He then proceeded to excoriate George W. Bush and the United States.
Earlier, Bush insulted Ahmadinejad by going over his head to tell the Iranian people the current crisis was because "your rulers have chosen to deny you liberty and to use your nation's resources to fund terrorism and fuel extremism and pursue nuclear weapons."
Americans may be forgiven if they felt they were watching a rerun of "The Howard Beale Show" or "The Mao Tse-tung Hour" from the 1976 Paddy Chayefsky classic, "Network."
What was transpiring, however, was a global version of the Iowa Straw Poll. The three presidents were playing to their base, using the U.N. forum to solidify their domestic constituencies and appeal to global ones.
Chavez, however, reduced himself to a comic figure. Other than those who already love him and hate America, the devil talk appeals to no one. Even in Latin America, they are tiring of him. Felipe Calderon, the PAN party candidate in Mexico, was running well behind the leftist Lopez Obrador, until his campaign began linking Obrador to Chavez. Obrador's lead vanished, and he lost, dragged down by Hugo.
Ahmadinejad used the forum to burnish his credentials as a devout Shi'ite, an Iranian nationalist, an implacable foe of Israel and the most defiant of all anti-American Muslims, standing up for Iran's right, under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to enrich uranium for peaceful nuclear power.
As the General Assembly is a hostile forum, Bush used it as a foil, and to good effect, challenging an Iranian regime that is feared and loathed by Americans more than any other on earth.
Indeed, for a Republican president to be attacked on one side by an Iranian radical perceived to be a Holocaust denier, who heads up a terrorist state and wants nuclear weapons, and, on the other, by a Latin leftist dictator, is an enviable position to be in, six weeks out from an off-year election. Democrats are grinding their teeth.
But comic relief aside, a serious play is underway.
In a startling comment, Bush, after declaring that "Iran must abandon its nuclear weapons ambitions," added, in comments directed to the Iranian people, "Despite what the regime tells you, we have no objection to Iran's pursuit of a truly peaceful nuclear power program."
Hours later, Ahmadinejad declared that Iran's nuclear program is "transparent, peaceful and under the watchful eye" of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog. He further pledged to observe the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Tehran has signed that prohibits any acquisition of nuclear weapons, but entitles Iran to peaceful nuclear power and the working knowledge of the technology of how it is produced.
Between Bush's position -- America has no objection to Iran's pursuit of nuclear power -- and Ahmadinejad's -- Iran's program is for peaceful nuclear power and fully under IAEA inspection -- there seems to be common ground on which to stand to avoid a conflict.
If both men are serious, the questions that remain are clear.
Are all of Iran's nuclear facilities open to IAEA inspection? If not, will Iran ensure they all are subject to inspection and shall remain so? Does Bush now accept Iran's right, under the NPT Iran has signed, to enrich uranium, under IAEA supervision, and acquire the knowledge that goes with it? Or does Bush yet insist on regime change, before Iran can exercise its rights under the NPT?
The conflict between us boils down to this: The United States contends that, as Iran kept part of its nuclear program secret for years, it must be seeking a nuclear weapons capability. Thus, Iran cannot be entrusted, despite its rights under the NTP, with a uranium-enrichment program. For the knowledge and the experience Iran would thereby gain would move it but a step away from being able to produce nuclear material for an atom bomb.
The bottom line question for President Bush is this: If Iran is unwilling to surrender its rights under the NPT to enrich uranium, is he willing to go to war to prevent this? Or would he settle for IAEA inspectors in all Iranian plants, which Ahmadinejad has said at least he is willing to accommodate? This may be the most critical question Bush will face in his remaining years in office.