War Stories

The President Has Two Faces

Bush is sending mixed signals on multilateralism.

Anyone ever heard of Sichan Siv? He’s the man President George W. Bush has chosen as his delegate to the United Nations’$2 60th-anniversary celebration in San Francisco later this month. Siv has the credentials; he’s the U.S. representative at the U.N. Economic and Social Council. But couldn’t Bush have picked an official who’s a bit more—oh, I don’t know—known? This is a guy who’s been mentioned in just a half-dozenNew York Times stories over the past five years, none of them in the lead paragraph.

The event’s organizers are publicly miffed by the move. Clearly, it’s a slight against the United Nations, but it shouldn’t be a surprise. Last month, after all, Bush sent one Stephen Rademaker, a deputy assistant secretary of state, to the United Nations’ official five-year review of the Non-Proliferation Treaty—an issue that the president cited as his No. 1 concern during the 2004 election. And, of course, he’s nominated John Bolton, who has famously disputed the very legitimacy of the United Nations, as his U.N. ambassador.

True, the bash in San Francisco is just that—a party. But all such events have unavoidable symbolic value and, for very little trouble, Bush could have used it to paint an image of commitment, not indifference.

The flare-up over Bolton is a case in point. The White House touts its nominee as a crusader for “reform.” What kind of reform? No one’s ever said. The anniversary party could have been an ideal forum for laying out a plan that, for instance, breaks through the United Nations’ current bureaucratic torpor and restores the founders’ original vision.

Simply sending Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice or her deputy, Robert Zoellick, would have amounted, at least, to a signal that the Bush administration takes the United Nations seriously. Sending Sichan Siv sounds like the opening line of a bad joke.

But there’s a broader implication, which goes beyond mere symbolism, and that concerns the Bush administration’s second-term attitude toward multilateral diplomacy in general.

There are some intriguing contradictions in the air. On the one hand, Bush has clearly come to realize that he can’t do everything—in fact, can’t do much of anything—on his own.

Last week, in a major concession to realism, Rice started asking other powers—the European Union, the United Nations, the Arab world—to help persuade the new Iraqi government to include more Sunnis in its ruling councils. It would have been nice had the Bush administration been similarly solicitous from the outset of the occupation—or, better still, had it been more eager to form alliances of pressure against Saddam Hussein back in 2002-03. But late is better than never (though, given how much time has been lost, only a little bit better).

Earlier this spring, after a victory lap through Europe, Bush decided there might be some merit after all in endorsing the European Union’s nuclear arms negotiations with Iran, which he had earlier bitterly opposed. And while the ultimate fate of these talks is uncertain (I have my own deep skepticism about them), the prospect of an Iranian nuclear arsenal has at least been postponed.

There is also an explicit awareness that further progress in peace and democracy in the Middle East—in Lebanon, Syria, and regarding relations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority—will have to take place, or at least be formalized, through U.N. Security Council resolutions.

In short, an odd mismatch is taking hold. On the one hand, the Bush administration is pursuing specific initiatives through multilateral forums. On the other hand, it is issuing general pronouncements that pelt those same forums with mud.

George W. Bush Term II seems to be, in this regard, as divided a presidency as George W. Bush Term I was, with the State Department pinstripers on one side and the White House/Pentagon bomb-throwers on the other. The chief difference, of course, is that State now has a real advocate. Condi Rice has the president’s ear whenever she wants it; Colin Powell had it only sporadically. Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld walked all over Powell, at least on the issues that they deemed important; Rice is winning a few battles on their turf. Still, the war is not over. And on many contested issues, it’s not even clear which side Rice is on. Where the president—and the country—come out on the era’s big questions cannot be predicted at all.