campaign desk

The Size Tens Seen around the World

International headlines focus less on the act, more on the significance of the insult
December 15, 2008

President Bush’s response to having a pair of shoes thrown at him by Iraqi journalist Muntader al-Zaidi during a press conference in the middle of his fourth and last visit to Iraq, was, “This happens. It’s a sign of a free society.”

His interviewer, ABC’s Martha Raddatz, rejoined: “It’s also considered a huge insult in this world, the sole of a shoe, throwing a shoe.”

Bush doesn’t quite answer the question embedded within Raddatz’s declarative statement. “Yeah, I guess,” he said. And then he moves on. “Look, the rest of the Iraqi press corps was humiliated these guys were just beside themselves. They felt he had disgraced their entire press corps. Frankly, I thought it was interesting. I thought it was weird, I thought it was unusual, to have a guy throw a shoe at you. But I’m not insulted.” (The full interview is here.)

In an ideal world, maybe Raddatz would have been able to engage in a discussion with Bush about what he has done to deserve the insult—rather than accepting a non-answer (that he wasn’t personally offended by it) and moving on. But when Bush moves on, Raddatz moves on too, launching into a Q&A about his trip and helping to portray the incident as something to discuss factually (from how many feet did al-Zaidi throw his shoes?)—a blip on Bush’s trip. Other accounts, speeding the other way, have taken the fetishistic route (tell me about The Shoe and Islam/politics/the Bushes).

Not so accounts from the international media, many of which focused less on the circumstances of the act itself, and more on the meaning of the insult behind it.

Al Jazeera’s story ran a modest headline (“Shoe attack mars Bush’s Iraq visit”), but contained a bolder line in the future tense, forecasting the president’s reputation and presuming the cast and tint of retrospective coverage: “The incident will serve as a vivid reminder of the widespread opposition to the US-led invasion of, and subsequent war in, Iraq – the conflict which has come to define Bush’s presidency.” Meanwhile, the UK’s Independent put forth a straightforward and harsh interpretation of the incident: “Iraqi journalist gives verdict on Bush’s reign by voting with his feet.”

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India’s Economic Times also took a this-is-how-Bush-will-be-remembered tack, with a headline that read: “Arab world hails shoe attack as Bush’s farewell gift.” Its lead? “Iraq faced mounting calls on Monday to release the journalist who hurled his shoes at George W. Bush, an action branded shameful by the government but hailed by many in the Arab world as an ideal parting gift to the US president.” The Times of India account said the same thing (its title: “For Arabs, ‘shoe’ is a four-letter word”), but with far more generalized and reactive verbiage: “Arab correspondents through the region have called the act as embodying the Middle East’s hatred for the outgoing American president.”

Julian Borger, a diplomatic correspondent for The Guardian, laid Bush out to dry in his analysis of the incident: “After eight years of careful stage management by the White House press staff, this will be how Bush is remembered in many parts of the world.” (Borger’s is also one of the more acerbic takes: “George Bush didn’t need a primer on Middle Eastern culture to know he was being insulted. Having a pair of shoes lobbed at you and having to cower behind a lectern does not look particularly presidential anywhere.”) But Borger also takes the opportunity to place his bets on the historical interpretation front.

The BBC’s focus on the insult includes a cheesy headline (“Bush shoe-ing worst Arab insult”), but it also calls the cultural significance of the shoe throwing the thing that has “added real sting to the assault” (and adds a bit of information: that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice “has been given the particularly insulting first name Kundara – meaning shoe”). It also good-naturedly and presciently apologizes for the numerous one-liner explanations of shoes in Islamic culture that have crowded all accounts: “There has been plenty of droll reaction in the wake of Sunday’s shoe attack to experts who have informed the public that ‘throwing a shoe at someone’s face is considered an insult in Islam.’”

And the German Welt chose to connect the historic dots already, writing about Krushchev: “The last time a shoe served as such a powerful political weapon was when an enraged Russian Premier Nikita Krushchev dramatically slammed his hardy Soviet leather shoe on his delegate desk at the United Nations General Assembly meeting. Almost fifty years down the line an Iraqi journalist succeeded in making his point felt when he hurled his shoes at U.S. President George W. Bush.”

We’ll hear the rumbling echoes of this incident in the days to come—and we’ll see how columnists interpret it (of course, they’ve already started).

But remember that today also brought news of a new prime minister (an economist) elected in Thailand; a nuclear-cooperation deal between the U.S. and the United Arab Emirates; activists gone missing in Zimbabwe; and a Human Rights Watch report (released today) on the failures of the Iraqi central criminal court. As the world accounts for these other happenings, it’s a rather good reminder that Muntader al-Zaidi’s shoe throwing is in and of itself a single act—an event that (fortunately or not) has already begun its rounds on the YouTube circuit. Many other news items won’t make those rounds. That’s not to trivialize this story, and the grave reasons for the insult, in the least. Rather, it’s just to stress that it’s the interpretation—what the above accounts hastily and unevenly dabble in—that will count.

Jane Kim is a writer in New York.