Take Two: Kerry Gets His Central Asian Nations Right

By Patrick Goodenough | February 26, 2013 | 4:36 AM EST

Secretary of State John Kerry speaks at the State Department in Washington on Feb. 14, 2013. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

(CNSNews.com) – Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday correctly named Kazakhstan as the venue for multinational talks this week on the Iranian nuclear standoff, five days after a fumble in his first speech as America’s top diplomat appeared to conflate the Central Asian country and its neighbor, Kyrgyzstan.

Speaking in London on the first stop of his inaugural foreign trip as secretary of state, Kerry referred to the “P5+1 talks with Iran that take place in Kazakhstan.” Tuesday’s meeting in Almaty brings together Iranian officials and representatives of the five permanent members of the Security Council – the U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France – plus Germany.

During a February 20 speech at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Kerry lauded State Department employees who, he said, “support democratic reforms in Kyrzakhstan and Georgia.”

While minor, Kerry’s gaffe was noteworthy in that the State Department in its transcript of the speech corrected it. Both the department’s transcript and closed captioning on the video clip render the phrase as “support democratic reforms in Kyrgyzstan and Georgia.”

Typically, State Department transcripts of briefings and speeches include any errors as delivered, with an asterisk and a correction at the bottom.

Kyrgyzstan is a country of 5.5 million people in Central Asia, slightly smaller than South Dakota, and home to the Manas air base, which since 2001 has been an invaluable facility in support of coalition operations in Afghanistan.

Kazakhstan is its much larger northern neighbor, four times the size of Texas and with a population of 17.5 million.

Neither is a free democracy, although Freedom House in its 2013 annual report grades Kyrgyzstan as “partly free” and Kazakhstan as “not free.”

Along with Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, they made up the Central Asian component of the Soviet Union before its collapse led to their independence as separate sovereign nations.

Before succeeding Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, Kerry was a longstanding member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, serving as its chairman for the past four years.

Also of note regarding the “Kyrzakhstan” slip was the fact that most media reporting on the speech failed to mention it at the time, although the speech was widely covered. A university spokesman said Monday that 68 media credentials had been issued for Kerry’s speech.

One exception was the online Global Post, which commented on the error in a Feb. 21 report.

Kerry’s gaffe did make headlines in Kyrgyzstan, however, noted both by the independent AKI Press agency and also by the national Kabar news agency, which ran a Voice of Russia dispatch on the issue.

A Nexis search of news reports finds no other reference to it – until five days after the speech, when Britain’s Daily Telegraph on Monday noted what it called “an embarrassing slip of the tongue” and said the State Department had “kindly omitted the error in the official transcript.”

Picking up on that report, national radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh commented during his show, “Can you imagine if George W. Bush had done this? Here it’s Monday and we’re just now finding out about this. This happened five days ago.”

President Bush was frequently mocked for verbal gaffes, including some relating to geography and foreign general knowledge.

While running for the presidency he called Greeks “Grecians” and was derided for being unable to name leaders in four hotspots – Pakistan, India, Taiwan and Chechnya. In 2001 he described Africa as “a nation that suffers from incredible disease.”

Other Republican politicians whose gaffes made headlines over the years included Vice-President Dick Cheney, who in answering a question in 2007 about Venezuela’s U.S.-baiting President Hugo Chavez said, “The people of Peru, I think, deserve better in their leadership.”

During his 2008 presidential campaign, Sen. John McCain mistakenly referred to “the situation on the Iraq/Pakistan border” (the countries are not neighbors) and Mitt Romney during his presidential bid last year said, “Syria is Iran’s only ally in the Arab world. It’s their route to the sea.” (Iran has a lengthy coastline of its own, and does not share a border with Syria).

But President Obama has also made gaffes. Visiting Burma last November he repeatedly mispronounced the name of Aung San Suu Kyi, one of the world’s most famous human rights figures. Standing alongside a woman he called “an icon of democracy,” Obama called her Aung Yan Suu Kyi four times. (The White House transcript did not reflect the error.)

A year earlier, Obama referred to an attack on  “the English Embassy” in Tehran before correcting himself and adding, “the embassy of the United Kingdom.” England is a component of Great Britain and has not maintained its own diplomatic missions for centuries.

Commented Heritage Foundation scholar Nile Gardiner at the time, “One can only imagine the kind of howls of derision that would greet any presidential contender if that kind of basic error were made before, say, the editorial board of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow