War Stories

Sweet Nothings

Bush’s U.N. speech offers platitudes instead of solutions.

George W. Bush doesn’t like speaking at the United Nations. You can see it in his eyes—the flicker of perplexity, bordering on distress, when he recites a line that draws surefire cheers on the campaign trail but only blank, distant stares from the assembly of world leaders.

This morning’s speech wasn’t as dreadful as the one he gave last year, but it suffered from the same basic inadequacy: He catalogs some of the world’s problems, then suggests nothing—not the vaguest plan of action—for how to deal with any of them.

An address before the U.N. General Assembly is, by nature and expectation, a gush of bromides. But given that President Bush has recently begun to realize that he needs help with Iraq, Afghanistan, and the war on terrorism, you would think he’d muster something more energizing than this:

Because I believe the advance of liberty is the path to both a safer and better world, today I propose establishing a Democracy Fund within the United Nations. … The fund would help countries lay the foundations of democracy by instituting the rule of law and independent courts, a free press, political parties, and trade unions. Money from the fund would also help set up voter precincts in polling places and support the work of election monitors. To show our commitment to the new democracy fund, the United States will make an initial contribution. I urge all other nations to contribute as well.

The first insult here is that the United Nations already has agencies for much of this work. The second is that Bush doesn’t even put a dollar figure on his “initial contribution.” It’s as if he were proposing that his most ambitious project—the global propagation of democracy—be funded through the March of Dimes.

It was a puzzling speech from start to finish. Near its beginning, when Bush said, “We know that dictators are quick to choose aggression, while free nations strive to resolve differences in peace,” was there a delegate in the chamber who didn’t wonder at the irony? It was Bush himself, after all, who was quick to choose war in Iraq—insiders’ chronicles agree that he decided on that path in early 2002, over a year before the U.N. debates—while the vast majority of the body’s members, free and unfree, were striving for a resolution short of conflict.

The main theme of Bush’s address was that democracy and peace march hand in hand. As he put it,

Our security is not merely found in spheres of influence or some balance of power; the security of our world is found in the advancing rights of mankind. These rights are advancing across the world. And across the world, the enemies of human rights are responding with violence.

Certainly there is something to this thesis. Very rarely have democratic nations gone to war against each other. But great clusters of dilemma and contradiction are contained in this equation, and Bush seems not to recognize, much less address, them. For instance, he mentioned at some length the recent terrorist attack in southern Russia—its inexcusable horror and the urgent need to capture the ruthless killers. He’s right, of course. But does this urgency justify President Putin’s ongoing suspension of Russian democracy? Which is the more compelling task—going after the terrorists (as Bush advocates in this section of the speech) or “advancing the rights of mankind” (as he champions in another section)? And does the terrorists’ cause—Chechen independence—have any legitimacy? If it does, is there—and should the world seek—a peaceful way to deal with it? Bush also referred to a putative spread of democracy in the Middle East. But if popular rule truly took hold in, say, Saudi Arabia, would Islamic fundamentalism be weakened or strengthened? These are the questions that need tackling, and it does little good to prattle clichés about the coming “liberty century” and “the desire for freedom [that] resides in every human heart.”

Bush may be right to say, “People everywhere are capable of freedom and worthy of freedom.” But it’s another matter to figure out where to take this idea—what “freedom” means in various contexts, whether to encourage its development universally, and what trade-offs might be involved for security and stability.

In short, when Bush says, “The circle of liberty and security and development has been expanding in our world,” he seems blissfully unaware that, for most countries, there is no such seamless circle. To the extent that liberty, security, and development are taking hold in many regions and societies, they are jostling and clashing with one another rather than expanding peacefully in tandem. These clashes pose the critical questions of our time. Bush’s speech evades them and assumes not merely that they don’t exist but that they can’t exist.

On the pressing issue of Iraq, Bush called on the civilized nations to help the new regime in its quest for freedom and security. “Each of us alone can only do so much,” Bush declared toward the end of his speech. “Together we can accomplish so much more.” The assembled leaders might be forgiven for thinking, “Now he wants us.”

At no point, though, did the president spell out what Iraq needs or why the rest of the world should bother. (There are many good reasons; Bush just didn’t outline any or offer any incentives that might lure other countries to get involved.) The plea for help contained too much delusion. “Instead of harboring terrorists,” he said of the Iraqis, “they’re fighting terrorist groups.” Many in the audience must have noted that much of the insurgency has been aimed at the U.S. occupation and that many terrorists crossed into Iraq only after the war. Bush also referred to “a growing Iraqi security force” to deal with this threat—though most in his audience must know of the report, in yesterday’s New York Times, that the Bush administration has supplied only a small fraction of the officers that its U.S. commanders say are needed to train the Iraqis.

None of these observations invalidates Bush’s claim that the world has an interest in the outcome of the struggle in Iraq. But they might make the world’s leaders skeptical that Bush—given his actions and attitudes over the past couple of years—is the one to assert this claim; that his newfound fealty to multilateralism should be taken seriously; that he’s a leader worth following.