Seeking common ground after a year of international friction, President Bush asked world leaders assembled at the United Nations on Tuesday to put their disagreements over Iraq behind them and to work together to transform that country into a democracy that will “inspire the Middle East.”
In a speech that began by recalling the horrors of the 9/11 attacks, Bush tried to lay to rest the notion that the United States had written off the United Nations as a serious concern in its foreign policy. But even as he endorsed and honored the work of the United Nations and reaffirmed U.S. support for the concept of collective security, he remained unapologetic about his decision to lead a coalition to war against Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq over the objections of the U.N. Security Council.
Turning his opponents’ arguments on their head, Bush asserted that the vanquishing of Saddam, who repeatedly defied U.N. resolutions, finally showed that defiance of the Security Council would not be tolerated in the post-9/11 world.
“Because there were consequences — because a coalition of nations acted to defend the peace and the credibility of the United Nations — Iraq is free, and today we are joined by representatives of a liberated country.”
In a speech that ranged from Iraq to Afghanistan, from the Middle East to the trade in young women for the sex industry, one theme permeated the president’s remarks: the need for the world to “move forward” after the deep divisions of the Iraq debate.
“This is not everything some wanted, but there was no cowboy talk, at least that I heard, and that means, perhaps, there’s a desire to move on,” a European diplomat who attended the session told MSNBC.com on condition of anonymity.
While Bush was not combative, he made no concession to those in the audience, most notably the French and German leaders, who have described the continuing violence in postwar Iraq as the unfortunate fulfillment of warnings issued to Washington last year.
France, Germany and Russia all have said they would like to see a faster “internationalization” of the postwar environment, with the United Nations overseeing more of the reconstruction issues and Iraqis taking charge of government. Bush has opposed this as unrealistic, and he said Tuesday that the United States would pursue the goal of rebuilding Iraq “neither hurried nor delayed by the wishes of other parties.”
The continuing disagreements have hampered the Bush administration’s quest for more money and foreign troops to take pressure off U.S. forces in Iraq. A U.S. resolution currently being circulated here had been intended to provide other nations with a U.N. “fig leaf” — allowing them to contribute to the multinational Iraq force without having to openly support Washington’s policies there, which remain very unpopular around the world. In recent days, administration officials have said they don’t expect the resolution — even if one does pass — to lead to significant increases in troop contributions.
SIGNS OF A THAW?
Still, Bush did not refer to France, Germany or other opponents of the Iraq war by name. When he did make reference to those disagreements, he did so in a way that downplayed their significance, stressing his belief that far more unites America and its traditional allies than divides them.
“Some of the sovereign nations of this assembly disagreed with our actions,” he said. “Yet there was, and there remains, unity among us on the fundamental principles and objectives of the United Nations. We are dedicated to the defense of our collective security, and to the advance of human rights. These permanent commitments call us to great work in the world — work we must do together. So let us move forward.”
Bush’s words follow similar conciliatory statements from French President Jacques Chirac, who told an audience in New York on Monday that he believed the Franco-American tensions would pass.
“Events over the past few months have led to tension in relations between our countries,” Chirac said. “I want to share my personal conviction with all of you, however, that the friendship between France and the United States is deeply rooted in our history
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who was particularly outspoken in his opposition to the Iraq war, took the unusual step of publishing an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times on Friday, presumably to pave the way for a rapprochement with Washington.
“It is true that Germany and the United States disagreed on how best to deal with Saddam Hussein’s regime. There is no point in continuing this debate,” Schroeder wrote. “We should now look toward the future. We must work together to win the peace.”
But, like France, the Germans continue to press for a far larger role for the United Nations than the Bush administration is willing to concede.
“The United Nations must play a central role. The international community has a key interest in ensuring that stability and democracy are established as quickly as possible in Iraq,” Schroeder wrote. “The international mission needs greater legitimacy in order to accelerate the process leading to a government acting on its own authority in Iraq.”
A NEW CHALLENGE
As he did in his speech to the General Assembly just over a year ago, Bush challenged the United Nations to live up to the promise of its founding.
“As an original signer of the U.N. Charter, the United States of America is committed to the United Nations,” he told the General Assembly. “And we show that commitment by working to fulfill the U.N.’s stated purposes and give meaning to its ideals.”
But while the venue was the same, the context is dramatically different. Last year, the president spoke a year and a day after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and many of the world leaders before him had just seen Ground Zero for the first time. America still enjoyed enormous sympathy among the world’s nations and the lightning success in Afghanistan gave U.S. policy credibility in the eyes of many.
The Iraq war, however, transformed world opinion and left many countries deeply worried about a superpower seemingly happy to ignore the very global institutions it helped to create after World War II.
“We really wanted to hear a stronger commitment from Bush on working within the Security Council,” a diplomat said. “The commitments he made were vague, and the impression is that he’s happy to keep acting unilaterally if the U.S. can’t get its way.”
The depth of discomfort around the world about Bush’s “go it alone” philosophy was on dramatic display in remarks by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who opened the day’s debate by specifically challenging the Bush administration’s doctrine of “pre-emptive action.”
By seeking to establish such a doctrine, Annan said, the United States opens the door to other nations that might choose to cite their parochial interests in order to pursue wars for territorial or other gains.
Annan conceded that the Security Council had to do far more to assuage the worries of powers like the U.S. who might be targets of stateless terrorism, possibly even with weapons of mass destruction.
He chided the Security Council’s permanent members for failing to reform the institution, who continues to reserve “vetoes” for the five nations that dominated the world in 1945, when the United Nations was founded, rather than 2003. The five are the United States, France, Britain, Russia and China. Proposals to add other powers — nations like India, Germany, Japan, Brazil or Egypt — as permanent members routinely fall prey to disputes among the five permanent powers over which countries should join and under what conditions.