Imperial overkill
Roads in midtown were closed for President Barack Obama`s motorcade in New York City.
September 21st, 2011
12:00 PM ET

Imperial overkill

By Fareed Zakaria, CNN

For anybody who lives in New York, the United Nations General Assembly is a nightmare. It means lots of traffic, snarl-ups, blockades, and policemen stopping people every time the foreign minister of some small country decides he wants to go to some diner for breakfast. But nothing compares with when the President of the United States decides to leave his hotel - or even, for that matter, to stay in his hotel.

I was trying to get to a restaurant two blocks away from where President Obama was staying. I ended up being half an hour late for my meeting because the President was going from the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel straight up Park Avenue to a fundraiser. You would think this would be a pretty easy logistical challenge. But, instead, it seemed like half the New York police force had come out. Something like 30 blocks were sealed off. There were at least 100 vehicles involved in the motorcade blockading side streets - all so he could travel 40 blocks uptown.

I understand the need for security, but it’s worth pointing out that when you travel around the world, even the presidents of Russia and China and other very big countries have nowhere near the kind of obsessive security that the President of the United States has. I understand the challenge. Nobody wants to be the guy who signs off on lowering the security levels for the President, because if something happens, that’s the person who’s going to be blamed. But we have to get a grip on this ever-expanding security apparatus.

The imperial air of these cordons and enormous motorcades is incredibly off-putting. It really has become a joke at this point with other diplomats talking about it all the time. It is worth quoting at length from the extremely well-written memoirs of British diplomat Chris Patten (who is ardently pro-American), recounting his experiences as Europe's Commissioner for External Relations.

"Attending any conference abroad, American cabinet officers arrive with the sort of entourage that would have done Darius proud. Hotels are commandeered; cities brought to a halt; innocent bystanders are barged into corners by thick-necked men with bits of plastic hanging out of their ears. It is not a spectacle that wins hearts and minds."

This is coming from a guy who was effectively the Foreign Minister of Europe and was the Governor of Hong Kong. He is used to pomp and splendor. All this American security has the feeling of the Roman Empire at its full height, obsessively worried about massive shows of strength and logistics.

By the way, there’s also a huge incentive for local authorities to maintain it. UN General Assembly week is the best week for overtime for the New York Police Department. If you ask, “Do you really need the 500 policemen on every side street around where the President is 24/7?” I’m sure they wouldn’t argue against it. It hasn’t gone unnoticed that President Obama's visit to New York is a great opportunity for lots of overtime.

soundoff (104 Responses)
  1. Marcus

    I usually value Fareed's articles but this one is just plain idiotic. I am sorry you couldn't get to your meeting but think about Regan and JFK before you just say all this is unnecessary. Roman empire at its height? whats that supposed to mean like this is the end for the US. Get a grip. Don't schedule meetings during UN general assembly. It's common sense. Today for some reason you are lacking Fareed.

    September 21, 2011 at 9:26 pm | Reply
  2. Rz

    When Obama was elected I feared that the so called "terrorists" might hatch a plot to assassinate him, but making it look like it was done by white supremacists. Imagine the resulting chaos that might erupt across the nation, especially if it happened immediately following his inauguration.
    In any case, there's no question as to the need to protect high profile figures, but it is obviously questionable sometimes as to whether or not events could have perhaps been planned differently as to avoid so much expense and public inconvenience. For example, it has been suggested on numerous occasions that the G20 meetings be held on a chartered cruise ship with or without public announcement. This makes perfect sense to me. No ones city is made to suffer the chaos, it's probably safer with lower costs, and I bet all the members and their entourage would love it.
    But hey, the governments love to spend your money sometimes in a showy way. Palin has her bus and Obama gets to shut down 40 blocks with a fancy motorcade. And Fareed is just making an observation. Don't everyone sweat it!

    September 21, 2011 at 10:33 pm | Reply
  3. cento

    Yea, people nor the press didn't seem to mind the presidential motorcade under George Bush, nor did they seem to mind the Vatican's motorcade and 'pope'-mobile a couple of years ago.

    September 22, 2011 at 1:30 am | Reply
  4. kaku Mathur

    Mr Zakaria mostly makes ample sense but I am surprised he has missed out the example of his home nation India! Here the motorcade of the Prime Minister moves with the road sanitised 10 minutes before which means that post the passing of the motorcade the jams can be an hour long! I think the overtime bit during the UNGA week is being unfair to the hard work that the policeman on the street has to put whether in New Delhi or New York!

    September 22, 2011 at 6:46 am | Reply
  5. elenore

    Fareed Zakaria wants us(Americans) to give away money to foreign aid,Cut down our military,let Asia become a world power using our technology,and let our Public officials defenseless to attack,because, we apparently never have assassinations ever.Why are you here again Mr. Zakaria,for a paycheck.Those cops also defend people in the crowd who would be defenseless bystanders and victims of a shooting, like in Arizona where a many victims were just there to talk to their congress woman.Maybe it would have been different had there been some Police.

    September 22, 2011 at 8:06 am | Reply
  6. billdave

    Yes, Obama does face risks. But, Fareed is right. If you have ever experienced the type and depth of security that surrounds the president, you know it's very, very intense. The motorcades block the street for a long period before they arrive. And, the motorcade itself takes ~ 10 minutes to pass. It has been this way even pre-9/11. We certainly could find ways to make this less intrusive for the President's "customers" (us).

    September 22, 2011 at 8:57 am | Reply
  7. Deb Dolbec

    Hate to burst your biggest in the world security bubble dear friends to our South but the Prime Minister in Canada and his security entourage is most likely bigger. I seem to remember reading something in recent history that he has more then doubled his personal security over any former Prime Minister in our Nation's history.

    The world has changed since 9/11 and yes I agree with you billdave. But for that brief period and it really is brief, the inconvienance of sitting in traffic for 1 hour I simply consider the cost of being a citizen who lives in a free Democratic country. Its a small price to pay.

    September 22, 2011 at 9:34 am | Reply
  8. MyTakeOnIt

    I'm not in agreement with most of Pres Obama's politics but he would be very stupid NOT to have the security that you are saying he has. Where have you been? Did you just drop in from outer space? Do you not know the crisis we are in nationally and globally? Seriously??

    September 22, 2011 at 11:50 am | Reply
  9. DAVE

    I think we need some more Presidential tour buses and drones patrolling over our heads 24/7.

    September 22, 2011 at 1:14 pm | Reply
  10. ben dover

    Fareed is just jealous...he thinks Barack gets all the white women...

    September 22, 2011 at 2:50 pm | Reply
  11. Gethetruth

    FZ is ingenuous to say the least. It is how you look at it. If you were delayed because of a street car accident will you write about it and say how stupid New Yorkers are ? It is not every day that he goes down that street. The President of the US is not the person Obama, It is not the person Obama that is being protected, it is the President of the US. So deal with it and get over your pettiness and bigotory. This is a wasted artilce and has no meaning. FZ, this time you have disappointed me. Don't stoop so low as to say that the President is causing inconvenience to you. People have lined up to see their President, do you think they should be denied it, so you can go to your so very important meeting ?
    Its pure nonsense and you should withdraw this article and apologize. Its a shame. I alway admired your work. it appears that Obama bashing is a way to score points for every upstart these day. Its losers who think this is Imperial. It is an imperative to protect the President at all costs. No one recovers from death, whether it is natural or caused by a gun or explosion. So do some deep thinking and stop thinking of your self as being important. Your are not ! but the President is !

    September 22, 2011 at 3:55 pm | Reply
  12. Dave

    Zakaria was inconvenienced so he vents. Get over your self, Zakaria. Obama is the President of the United States and you are a crybaby who landed a good job.

    September 22, 2011 at 7:12 pm | Reply
  13. DAVE

    Maybe it would be more cost effective to use private security firms to guard our officials.

    September 22, 2011 at 10:29 pm | Reply
  14. RichardF

    Get over yourself, Fareed. You chose to live in New York City, a crowded and congested place. Because your restaurant date was interupted to make sure the president was protected, you're now complaining. Please earn CNN's healthy salary by writing meaningful and intelligent topical articles (as you usually do), and not disingenuous whining about the president as coverup to the disruption of your comfort and lifestyle.

    September 23, 2011 at 12:59 am | Reply
  15. jose

    Well now you know what we go through in NYC. But the case with Obama is not only in NYC, its everywhere he goes. This character thinks he is better than anybody else and needs to show he is the president of the USA. I believe he was elected by people who were not thinking, let see what sort of security will he get once he is out of office-yes, out-His wife also thinks that using taxpayers' money for her calicature visits to places is funny. Oh well, that's what we get for electing someone who had no class as a senator and no plan for this country and we will pay more-just watch his doings in the coming months.

    September 23, 2011 at 7:47 am | Reply
  16. abu

    Hail the emperor!

    September 23, 2011 at 10:14 am | Reply
    • Chuck

      That was a little ignorant of you.

      September 25, 2011 at 10:14 pm | Reply
  17. jack lynn

    He should wear a mustache, hoodie, and dark glasses and ride the subway and nobody would notice him. And the taxpayers would save millions of dollars.

    September 23, 2011 at 11:13 am | Reply
  18. Thomas T. Oommen

    Our President must be well protected, no matter what the cost is. He is the leader of the free world.

    September 24, 2011 at 12:35 pm | Reply
  19. Kayla

    I totally disagree with this article- in fact, I didn't even finish it I found it ridiculous.

    I live in Washington, DC and have seen his motorcade more times than I can keep track of. It is not THAT large and actually is so efficient that it really only causes a 5-10 minute delay in my commute. I have also seen Michelle's and it was even smaller/less interruptive.

    Also, I can gaurentee Obama doesn't love having to travel like that either. I was recently by the South Lawn and security had to clear us out (which took 30 minutes for them to do) because he wanted to take a 10 minute walk through his garden. For someone who literally carries the weight of the world on his shoulders, not only does he deserve a 10 minute walk to clear his head, but I don't think he loves having to wait 30 minutes to clear out everyone in a mile radius.

    While of course it causes inconveience to New Yorkers when he is visiting your city, it is very understandable as to why this is. Regardless of your poilitcal affiliations, he is your President and should be protected.

    If everyone in NYC didn't feel the need to own a car and stopped throwing trash all over the subway to encourage use of public transit, perhaps you wouldn't have even noticed he was there.

    September 24, 2011 at 2:37 pm | Reply
  20. hvespucci

    that's how i felt when there was an imperial air broadcasting and media oogling of the royal wedding i felt like i couldn't watch or read real news for 3 days.

    September 24, 2011 at 11:33 pm | Reply
  21. sielingfan

    I think we're all a little more concerned, ever since "the Dark Knight" highlighted all the security risks of an urban environment.

    September 25, 2011 at 12:14 pm | Reply
  22. KRM1007

    This is representative of the insecurity in this world. One of the reasons for this is reflected in a recent article below. As is evident, such atrocities by hindu extremists are fueling a reaction the effects of which are being felt in USA and rest of world. India could help by stopping the slaughter. Yes???

    "Amnesty International is calling for an impartial investigation into mass graves found in Indian-controlled Kashmir.Sunday, India's Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission released a report saying a three-year investigation had uncovered 2,156 unidentified bodies in 38 sites in the region. In a statement released Monday, Amnesty International asked Indian officials to allow impartial forensic experts to carry out a thorough investigation of the skeletal remains. The rights group also urged Indian authorities to ensure the safety of the witnesses who gave statements to police during the investigation.Indian authorities conducted the inquiry in response to allegations that Indian security forces have committed rights abuses in fighting a more than two-decade-long Muslim separatist insurgency. Rights activists say at least 8,000 people have gone missing in Indian Kashmir since the separatists began fighting in 1989 for independence from Hindu-majority India or a merger with Muslim-majority Pakistan. Rebel attacks and Indian government crackdowns have killed at least 50,000 people. Some information for this report was provided by AP. "

    September 25, 2011 at 1:50 pm | Reply
  23. GM

    Stfu FZ, you need to rest your mouth.

    September 26, 2011 at 1:07 am | Reply
  24. Olakunle

    God, you are stupid and I really do mean it. First of all, how old are you? How did you start writing for CNN? Did you school in india or US cos i have a lot of indian friends and i know how smart they are. Schools in US won't give you a degree if you ever schooled there. Am not an american, am a Nigerian but i think that's the most stupid thing I have ever seen anyone write.. Not even a reporter here in nigeria would write such. You are a shame to journalism cos you are given the freedom to write anything doesn't really mean you have to write nonsense. Perhaps if your father was Obama I wonder if you would write such. You are so selfish and self centered and I hope you dont be in a position of leadership someday. Am not supporting Obama cos he is black and I don't care if he is or not..finally i blame CNN for allowing such nonsense to be publish. SHAME ON YOU ALL

    September 26, 2011 at 8:37 am | Reply
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