Has an American president ever delivered such a bafflingly impertinent speech before the General Assembly as the one George W. Bush gave this morning?
Here were the world's foreign ministers and heads of state, anxiously awaiting some sign of an American concession to realism—even the sketchiest outline of a plan to share not just the burden but the power of postwar occupation in Iraq. And Bush gave them nothing, in some ways less than nothing.
In the few seconds he devoted to that subject, he cited only three areas in which the role of the United Nations (or any other nations) should be expanded: writing an Iraqi constitution, training a new corps of civil servants, and supervising elections. None of these notions is new.
Otherwise, Bush's message can be summarized as follows: The U.S.-led occupation authority is doing good work in Iraq; you should come help us; if you don't, you're on the side of the terrorists.
The speech seemed cobbled from the catchphrases of last year's playbook, as if Bush were trying to replicate the success of his previous appearance before the General Assembly—his September 2002 speech, which roused the Security Council to warn Saddam Hussein of "serious consequences"—without showing the slightest recognition that the old words have grown stale and sour.
Bush dredged out the familiar formula—weapons of mass destruction plus terrorism equals the enemy in Iraq—forgetting, or perhaps not caring, that it didn't persuade the United Nations back in November, when Saddam was still in power, and couldn't hope to win backers now.
He described the guerrilla war, still ongoing, as a battle against "terrorists and holdouts of the previous regime"—ignoring a recent finding of the U.S. intelligence community that the main, and most rapidly growing, threat these days comes from ordinary Iraqis, resentful of the occupation.
He laid out the context of the battle as a contest between "those who work for peaceful change and those who adopt the methods of gangsters." Yet it is hard to see how Bush's pre-emptive-war doctrine fits the former category, and it's painful to observe that many Iraqis would say the U.S. occupation—whose soldiers have pounded down so many doors in the middle of the night—fits the latter.
He acknowledged no mistakes, either in the intelligence that preceded the war or in the planning (or lack thereof) that followed it.
He did acknowledge that "some of the sovereign nations of this assembly disagreed" with his decision to go to war, but added that it is time to move on. "Every young democracy needs the help of friends," he said. "All nations of goodwill should step forward and provide that support."
He painted the United States as following the true principles of the U.N. charter, which call on all nations to "stand with the people of Afghanistan and Iraq," as they build freedom. As for a timetable for turning over power, he said only that the process should be "neither hurried nor delayed."
"The United States of America is committed to the U.N.," Bush added, "by giving meaning to its ideals"—but not, apparently, by sharing authority with its constituents.
Bush spent the remainder of the speech exhorting his fellow leaders to join forces against nuclear proliferation, AIDS, and the international sex-slave trade. Such sentiments would be inoffensively bromidic in a typical address before the General Assembly. But Bush cheapened the causes by linking them with the unfinished business in Iraq. All of these issues, he said in his conclusion—Iraq, terrorism, and WMD, as well as AIDS and teen sex-slaves—require "urgent attention and moral clarity."
The rest of the world's leaders, who had remained conspicuously silent throughout the speech, greeted its conclusion with, at best, polite applause, which is the most it deserved. By comparison, the droningly convoluted speech that followed, by French President Jacques Chirac, was a model of perspicacity.
One section of Bush's speech is worth very serious note. "Success of a free Iraq," he said, "will be watched and noted throughout the region." A free and democratic Iraq would provide a shining example that could transform the Middle East, and "a transformed Middle East would benefit the entire world."
Bush is absolutely right on this point, which is why he needs to get over his hang-ups about France, the Security Council, and the diplomatic disasters of last November, and to get serious about working out a common solution to the much bigger disaster that looms in Iraq. His speech could, and should, have signaled a new opening. Instead, it seemed to close off every option.