Bush gives UN an ultimatum
His speech Thursday challenged the UN to enforce its curbs on Iraq or be sidelined.
WASHINGTON — President Bush's message to the United Nations regarding Iraq appears to be this: Either you enforce UN resolutions against Saddam Hussein's misbehavior, or I will.
In his historic speech to the opening of the General Assembly on Thursday, Mr. Bush did not so much seek to sell delegates on the dangers posed by Iraq as challenge them to live up to their own past actions.
He made clear that the US is prepared to act on Iraq with few friends if necessary. In effect, Bush placed the onus of warfare on the international community: He said it was time for the UN to rescue its own legitimacy by enforcing the many resolutions it has passed over a decade requiring destruction of Iraq's weapons-development programs.
"It was clearly an ultimatum," says Tom Nichols, chairman of the department of strategy and policy at the United States Naval War College in Newport, R.I. "[Bush] was basically putting the UN on notice."
By comparing the current crisis to the challenges the UN faced when it was founded in the wake of World War II, Bush signaled his view that Iraq represents a threat to international order in a way similar to international terrorism.
"All the world now faces a test ... and the United Nations a difficult and defining moment," Bush said. "Are Security Council resolutions to be honored and enforced, or cast aside without consequence? Will the United Nations serve the purpose of its founding, or will it be irrelevant?"
The speech came less than a year after another Bush address to the General Assembly in which he asked for and largely received a "comprehensive commitment" from the international community to join and stick with the fight against terrorism.
In that speech Bush said, "Every nation has a stake in this cause," and the world almost unanimously agreed. But to rally the world behind a policy of regime change for Iraq, as the president hopes and to do it largely on the basis of a threat rather than a provoking act of aggression is much more difficult.
The countries that joined in the international coalition after Sept. 11, 2001, understood that fighting terrorism was not just the US's battle. But they aren't convinced that the fight with Saddam Hussein is similarly theirs.
One measure of the difficult sell Bush faces came in the speech by UN General Secretary Kofi Annan to the General Assembly, which preceded the president's. Stressing the importance of multilateralism, he said that even when force was necessary, the UN must be involved.
"When states decide to use force to deal with broader threats to international peace and security, there is no substitute for the unique legitimacy provided by the United Nations," Mr. Annan said. He called international inspections under UN auspices the "indispensable first step" to assuring the destruction of Iraq's weapons.
But he also left the door open to force, saying, "If Iraq's defiance continues, the council must face its responsibilities."
That wording, coupled with Bush's speech, appeared to signal how the US and the international community might bring their differing views on Iraq in closer alignment. Many countries seem to worry that shifting the focus to Mr. Hussein risks weakening the international war on terrorism.
"The international coalition was constructed to fight this global battle with terrorism, and we must not let it be undermined by changing its rationale," says Idriss Jazairy, Algerian ambassador to the US.
In one sense, Bush was arguing for a more activist UN a detour from the attitude of many Republicans during the Reagan years, when the UN was more often dismissed than considered an avenue for action. The list of unenforced UN resolutions that Bush laid out is undeniable, but his extension of international grievances against Hussein to such conditions as free elections and respect for human rights may be harder for many UN members to accept.
Some observers say Bush will have no trouble getting support at home and abroad for quick action on UN resolutions, but that the balking will start at the call for action on other principles.
"I think [Bush has] made a compelling case that Saddam Hussein is in violation of the UN resolutions, and I think he'll get support for enforcement" of them, says Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security adviser for President Carter. "I'm not sure he's going to get support for that large list of additional conditions, which are not part of the UN resolutions, [such as] internationally supervised elections, liberty for the Iraqi people."
Mr. Brzezinski says the president did not make the case that the Iraqi regime poses an imminent threat, and he says the question remains open whether Bush's words mean the US will stop at enforcement of UN resolutions if that occurs, or go it alone for regime change.
While Thursday's speech was delivered at the UN, another intended audience was the US Congress. Bush has said he will consult Congress before taking action against Iraq, and has assured leaders that administration officials will take part in hearings scheduled for later this month.
And while both GOP and Democratic leaders praised the president's words, some Democrats indicated it had not erased all their concerns about going to war. Republican leaders, for their part, want a vote on a resolution in support of the president. In a joint appearance, Sens. John McCain (R) of Arizona and Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi urged the move to "send a message to the United Nations and our allies that our nation stands behind the president."
Democrats want more time for deliberation. Senate majority leader Tom Daschle (D) of South Dakota sees several questions that need further exploring: What is the degree of support from the international community? Would attacking Iraq undermine the war on terrorism? What is the post-Hussein plan?
In the end, while the onus may now be on the UN and Hussein to avoid war, Bush may still have more selling to do. "I'm not sure [Bush] persuaded the skeptical audience in the UN, nor the American people, nor Congress at this point," says James Thurber, a congressional expert at American University in Washington.
Francine Kiefer, Gail Russell Chaddock, and Ann Scott Tyson contributed to this report.