to George W. Bush address the United Nations
General Assembly on Nov. 10, the question is whether the Presidential
suit is half-empty or half-full. Has Mr. Bush fully grasped the need to
move beyond the unilateralist attitudes of his party, or is he merely
mouthing platitudes that serve the needs of wartime?
The tone of the
Bush speech was certainly encouraging, giving
voice to sentiments that are rarely heard among conservative
Republicans. It was refreshing to hear this once-parochial
President say that "we"—presumably meaning the international
community—"must press on with our agenda for peace and
prosperity in every land," making specific references to
development, trade and investment in the global effort to
contain the AIDS pandemic. "In our struggle against hateful
groups that exploit poverty and despair, we must offer an
alternative of opportunity and hope," he said, without
expanding upon what that alternative might be.
Mr. Bush even
spoke of Kofi Annan, recently slandered by Osama bin Laden, as
"our Secretary General"—a tiny phrase that nevertheless must have irked isolationist
Republicans who regard the United Nations as an affront to American sovereignty.
Only months ago, those isolationists were again proposing to withdraw U.S. support
from the U.N., a species of idiocy silenced within two weeks after Sept. 11, when
Congress suddenly agreed instead to pay more than $800 million in back dues, with
$840 million more to come by year’s end.
Like his father
before him, Mr. Bush has discovered that those foreigners in Turtle
Bay have their uses, notably in the two resolutions swiftly and unanimously passed
by the Security Council authorizing allied military operations under Chapter 7 of the
U.N. Charter. He could scarcely have asked for a broader endorsement. And Mr.
Annan’s reappointment of an able Algerian diplomat as special envoy for
Afghanistan provided an important opening to certain key parties, such as the
government of Iran, with which the United States at present has no official contact.
As a new convert
to the doctrine of "nation-building" that he derided during his
campaign last year, Mr. Bush also seems to understand the potential role of the
U.N. His promise to work with international organizations to "reconstruct" a
postwar Afghanistan was a significant departure from his administration’s previous
posture, as was his clear declaration of renewed resolve to foster a settlement
between Israel and the Palestinians.
Yet if Mr. Bush
has truly turned a new page in his worldview, his weekend speech
left that page mostly blank. He said precious little about AIDS and poverty, and not
a word about other contentious issues such as global warming, nuclear proliferation
or debt reduction. Instead, he departed from his main topic to lecture the delegates
about the election of certain rogue states to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights,
as though nothing in the world matters nearly as much as anything that irritates the
In those respects,
Mr. Bush’s appearance on the U.N. podium was a squandered
opportunity. He rightly urged world leaders to attend to the threat posed by
terrorists who may someday possess weapons of mass destruction, if they don’t
already. He eloquently expressed the indignation felt by all decent people who
witnessed the atrocities perpetrated by civilization’s common enemies. And he
implicitly asked the world to accept American leadership against those enemies.
What he failed
to do was to offer any reciprocal attention to the profound concerns
of peoples and countries who have felt neglected, even spurned, by American
policymakers. That halting approach was adequate to the moment, but eventually
Mr. Bush will have to do much better.
There are reasons
to believe that he may, and reasons to fear that he will not. His
negotiations this week with Russian President Vladimir Putin are promising,
particularly if they lead to real reductions in nuclear armaments without voiding the
Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. But he still seems obsessed with the chimera of missile
defense at the expense of more important measures against terror, including
underfunded programs to safeguard Russian nuclear materials and the endangered
chemical and biological weapons treaty.
Coming from a
politician reared in the stifling atmosphere of Texas Republicanism,
even the most tentative nod toward a larger horizon represents progress. As a young
man, George W. watched his father contend with the most bitterly paranoid currents
of isolationism, and he has demonstrated his own determination not to alienate his
party’s right-wing fringe. Still, if he believes his own rhetoric about humanity’s
responsibility to oppose fascist aggression "decisively and collectively," he will have
to articulate a broader vision of America’s commitment to the rest of the people
who share this planet.
is a defining moment for the United Nations itself," Mr. Bush told his
audience there. In fact, it is also a defining moment for him and his administration,
as well as for our country. A military victory is only the very beginning.
You may reach Joe Conason via email at: email@example.com.