When the "family of nations" gathers, expect a mad uncle or two to show up. Sure enough, the 64th session of the UN General Assembly this week was blighted by the participation of Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Libya's Muammar Gaddafi.
In 1993, the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, writing about how cities had resigned themselves to outlandish, unacceptable behavior by segments of their populations, coined the phrase "defining deviancy down." The UN General Assembly established its reputation for "defining deviancy down" in 1974, when it invited Yasser Arafat to speak.
On Wednesday, Libya's costumed colonel denounced the UN's structure, noting disdainfully that the tyrannical majority is partly constrained by the UN Charter; and ripped up a copy. After 90 minutes of blather, he finished by complaining that the General Assembly was "like Hyde Park Corner - we just speak, and nobody implements our decision."
Later, Ahmadinejad took the podium to pronounce that it was unacceptable for "a small minority" to "dominate the politics, economy and culture of major parts of the world by its complicated networks." This cabal - guess who he meant - sought to "establish a new form of slavery and harm the reputation of other nations." He then demanded to know why the "crimes" of the "Zionist regime" received unconditional support from "certain governments."
Out of the 192 Assembly members, let it be recorded that a few, including Argentina, Australia, Britain, Canada, Costa Rica, Denmark, France, Germany, Hungary, Israel, Italy, New Zealand, the United States - and Sweden, according to Israel Radio - dissociated themselves from this odious message by not having representatives present in the chamber while he spoke.
Of course, a bigger test for the international community comes on October 1 when the permanent members of the Security Council, plus Germany, meet with Iranian diplomats to try once again to sway the mullahs to abandon their quest for nuclear weapons. Iran will continue to play for time, knowing that China, but now Russia perhaps less, opposes punishing economic sanctions.
By year's end, it should become apparent once and for all whether the civilized world has the will to stop an Iranian bomb.
IT WASN'T all Hyde Park Corner at the General Assembly.
President Barack Obama delivered a substantive address devoted partly to peace "between Israel, Palestine and the Arab world."
For Israelis, it was a painfully measured speech - one sentence for us, and one for the Arabs.
Still, he advised Arab states to publicly back a peace they claim privately to support.
He said the goal of peacemaking was to end "the occupation that began in 1967" by establishing a contiguous Palestinian state. Palestinian advocates took this to mean that the president wanted an Israeli withdrawal to the 1949 Armistice Lines. He said no such thing.
Radical Palestinians interpreted Obama's advocacy of "a Jewish State of Israel" as negating the Palestinians' claim to a "right of return." We agree.
Relative moderates among the Palestinians were perturbed that Obama wanted negotiations to resume without preconditions. Mahmoud Abbas had been holding out for a total settlement freeze. Yet by speaking of "settlements" in the generic sense, without reference to strategic settlements blocs, the president was inadvertently encouraging Abbas to dig in his heels.
UNSURPRISINGLY, Obama found it politic not to mention that Hamas controls Gaza and has designs on the West Bank. Palestinian disunity was the elephant in the room.
Palestinian elections are supposed to take place in 2010. Paradoxically, unity augurs ill because among the Palestinians, rejectionism has historically trumped conciliation. At the same time, the continuing fragmentation of the Palestinian polity makes genuine conflict resolution a theoretical goal, at best.
Given the inhospitable venue, we did not realistically expect Obama to take moderate Palestinians to task for their unwavering insistence on the "right" to settle Palestinians en masse in Israel proper; nor did we expect him to call on them to budge from their demand for a pullback to the 1967 boundaries. We also did not realistically expect the president to say that Palestinian demilitarization is the sine qua non of any resolution.
But Obama must at least say these things privately to the Palestinians if the prospect of lasting peace "between Israel, Palestine, and the Arab world" is to be fulfilled.