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.