War Stories


Bush goes to Turtle Bay—and says nothing.

President Bush had nothing to say at the United Nations today. This was the clearest message of his 25-minute speech before the General Assembly—that he has no plans to change course, no desire to talk with his enemies, no proposals to put on the table, no initiatives of any sort, except to name an envoy to Sudan.

His address was full of stirring words, signifying nothing. At one point, he spoke “directly to the people across the broader Middle East.” To Iraqis, he said, “We will not abandon you”—which many Iraqis must have taken as a mixed blessing at best. To Afghans, he said, “We will stand with you,” to which they could be forgiven for blinking a skeptical eye. To the Lebanese, he expressed admiration for their courage but said surprisingly little else.

His message to the people of Iran was puzzling. The United States, he said, respects their country. “We admire your rich history, your vibrant culture, and your many contributions to civilization.” The problem is “your rulers,” who “deny you liberty” and seek nuclear weapons. Then came the giveaway: “We’re working toward a diplomatic solution to the crisis. And as we do, we look to the day when you can live in freedom.”

Bush revealed in those two sentences his utter lack of interest in a diplomatic solution. Why would Iran’s leaders—why would any nation’s leaders—take seriously any offer or inducement from a president who, in one breath, endorses sitting down for talks and, in the next breath, calls on their people to rise up and overthrow them?

It would be one thing if the streets of Tehran were teeming with resistance movements or if the regime were on the verge of crumbling. But, alas, neither is the case. Under the circumstances, abstract calls to unite and rebel have worse than no effect; they endanger the few struggling reformers by tagging them as agents of American imperialism.

In his closing, President Bush posed a challenge to the General Assembly: “The nations gathered in this chamber must make a choice. … Will we support the moderates and reformers who are working for change across the Middle East, or will we yield the future to the terrorists and extremists?”

Which “moderates and reformers” is he talking about? What kind of “change across the Middle East”? What actions is he proposing the nations take? Or is he just reciting bromides, uninterested in the answers or in how “this chamber”—which, undeniably, has a dreadful record on such issues—might try to deal with them?

The sad fact is that, even among Middle Eastern countries governed by aspiring or actual democrats, the United States is less and less a moral model. Our beacon has dimmed not because of who we are but because of what we’ve done. And President Bush made clear today that he’s not going to do anything differently.