Fair or not, Americans have a reputation for being blithely clueless about the rest of the world, a stereotype that is often bolstered by U.S. leaders mangling the names of foreign officials and countries. Hewing to this time-honored tradition, John Kerry last week invented the nation "Kyrzakhstan" in a speech on the eve of his first trip abroad as secretary of state, which was presumably a mash-up between the Central Asian nations of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. And for those wondering, there is a big difference: While Kazakhstan enjoys strong relations with Russia, its neighbor Kyrgyzstan is a valuable ally in the U.S.'s war in Afghanistan. But Kerry can take solace in the fact that he's hardly the first American to flub a foreign name. Here, a tour of some past howlers:
The "Stans" appear to be particularly problematic for Americans, and one-time Republican presidential candidate Hermain Cain all but admitted that he wasn't going to bother to sort them out in an interview in 2011 with the Christian Broadcasting Network:
CBN: Are you ready for the 'gotcha' questions that are coming from the media and others on foreign policy? Like, who's the president of Uzbekistan?
CAIN: I'm ready for the 'gotcha' questions and they're already starting to come. And when they ask me who is the president of Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan I'm going to say, you know, I don't know. Do you know? [ThinkProgress]
For the record, it's Islam Karimov.
2. "Aung YAN Suu Kyi"
President Obama, whose globe-trekking youth has earned him a reputation as a worldly sort, is hardly above such slip-ups. When Obama visited Myanmar in November, he reportedly mispronounced the name of famed pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, repeatedly referring to her as Aung YAN Suu Kyi, a faux pas that could only have been matched if Suu Kyi had referred to the president as Yomama or Osama. According to The New York Times, Suu Kyi "flinched but later hugged him."
3. "Meh, uh, Me-ned-vadah — whatever"
During the 2008 Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton strove to present herself as an experienced global leader, in contrast to her woefully green opponent, one Senator Barack Obama of Illinois. So it was something of a story when Clinton was unable to identify the president of Russia in a debate, uttering a stream of nonsensical syllables before dismissing the endeavor entirely: "Meh, uh, Me-ned-vadah — whatever." Whatever! He's only the president of Russia. And the president at the time was Dmitry Medvedev.
4. "Sa-DAMN Hussein" and sundry
President George W. Bush garbled so many names during his tenure that it's hard to know where to begin. He constantly referred to the deposed leader of Iraq as Sa-DAMN Hussein, which made the dictator sound like a Texan cuss word. He had as much trouble with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, somewhat marring the Annapolis peace conference in 2007. Bush also notoriously had his speeches written with phonetic spellings (Harare as hah-RAR-ray, or Mugabe as moo-GAH-bee) so that he wouldn't make any mistakes. Then again, Bush had plenty of problems with English (his absolutely incorrect pronunciation of nuclear, "misunderestimated," etc.) so at least he was an equal-opportunity offender.
5. "Boo-trus, Boo-trus Ghali"
Perhaps no global official has gotten as much grief for his name as former United Nations Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. He memorably had his name extended to Boutros Boutros Boutros-Ghali in a mock interview with Ali G, and David Letterman once quipped about him, "The man so nice they named him twice." But while Boutros-Ghali took those jokes in stride, in his memoir he wrote that he had been quite hurt when Senator Bob Dole kept referring to him as "Boo-trus, Boo-trus Ghali" during his 1996 run for president.
So many U.S. politicians are guilty of referring to Iraq as "Eye-raq" that it would be unfair to single out a culprit. However, the issue briefly flared up during the 2008 race, with conservatives rallying around Sarah Palin for her use of the incorrect version. In contrast to Obama's "ostentatiously exotic pronunciation of Pakistan," said Mark Steyn at National Review, "one thing I like about Sarah Palin is the way she ways 'Eye-raq.'" Because mispronouncing foreign names is, presumably, a hallmark of a true American.
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