Bush holds line on Iraq
President appealed for UN support for reconstruction, but faced a skeptical audience.
UNITED NATIONS, N.Y. — President Bush went to the United Nations Tuesday with a message of both conciliation and resolve.
In a speech making clear that the war on terrorism remains the organizing action of his government, the president accepted a crucial UN role in the world, but did not waver on the rightness of going to war in Iraq.
In a sense, the message of Mr. Bush's speech to the world body was, as last year, a challenge: Let us together tackle gathering threats to global security, including terrorism, nuclear proliferation, and even scourges such as human trafficking, so the US won't need to resort to another Iraq war.
On Iraq, the president called for all countries to join in building its security and political foundation, but offered no concession to those who seek a quicker transition to full Iraqi sovereignty.
Bush spoke to a skeptical audience at the UN and a US constituency now split over the wisdom of going to war in Iraq. And despite the points he probably won with world leaders for emphasizing the challenge of "soft" threats like disease and poverty, some experts say he probably failed in his goal of eliciting more global support for Iraq.
"Bush showed he was concerned about a lot of the softer problems, but his real challenge was to get the UN members involved with more money and troops in Iraq, and on that I don't think he accomplished much," says Lawrence Korb, a former Pentagon official under the Reagan administration.
Mr. Korb, who ranked Bush's challenge to the UN last year among the president's best speeches, says his lack of specificity in what tasks he wants the world to take on in Iraq and what control it would have in doing so will leave countries shy about jumping in. "I don't see any promises of troops and money from this, and that's what the American public wants to see," says Korb, now a fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington.
Bush maintained a focus on the moral rectitude of international action by using a rhetoric of black and white, and good and evil - a rhetoric that has made some countries uncomfortable, but is now expected of the president by his core supporters at home. In speaking at length about the scourge of commerce in human life as well as the international sex trade, Bush cited a "special evil in the exploitation of the most vulnerable."
By also focusing on his Proliferation Security Initiative, which seeks to unite countries in the interdiction of internationally transported nuclear materials, Bush is emphasizing a multilateral approach to global security. That reflects the tack the administration has so far emphasized in confronting both North Korea and Iran.
The US has pressed the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect Iran's nuclear program, and emphasized multinational talks with North Korea. Both efforts are proceeding, even as the two countries advance towards nuclear status.
Yet as the president's polite but reserved reception in the General Assembly demonstrated, the war in Iraq, unpopular with a majority of countries and deeply questioned as a model for preemptive action against a security threat, hangs over the international body like a sword.
In his speech opening the General Assembly's annual session, Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the logic behind the Iraq war - unilateral preemptive action -- presents the UN with a "fundamental challenge" to the principles on which it was founded.
Mr. Annan said the war had brought to the UN to a "fork in the road ... no less decisive" than in 1945 when the UN was founded after World War II. Acknowledging the new kind of challenge presented by new terrorist threats, Mr. Annan said the UN must either find new ways to act collectively against security threats, or resign itself to unilateral action by powers that perceive an imminent threat.
In that sense, Annan was acknowledging the particular role of the US as the world's only superpower, which as such is also a particular target of global terrorism.
Bush's speech gave few hints as to how much political control the US might be willing to give up to the UN in Iraq.
With the US still mulling key questions for a resolution, such as how much of a timetable for Iraqi sovereignty to include and how specific to be on tasks the UN could take over in the political realm, a vote is seen to be set for the end of the week at the earliest.
"On the question of whether it's clear what shape the resolution is taking, the answer is simply no," says one UN official in the secretarygeneral's office.
Any world leaders looking for an overriding "conciliatory tone" in the speech were probably disappointed, the official says. But on the other hand, Bush's plans to stay two days in New York to meet with leaders is seen as an important gesture - as is Bush's willingness to talk about "specifics" including a UN role in helping Iraqis write a constitution, and later with elections.
Bush said the UN would be vital to Iraq in writing a new constitution, training civil servants, and organizing successful elections.
"The secretary-general wants specificity on the concrete authority the UN will have to go in and really deliver on set tasks," the official says. "As the president has noted, we have experience and expertise in a number of crucial areas, from running a country after conflict to elections and human rights."
Annan has scheduled a lunch with the foreign ministers of the Security Council's five permanent members Thursday, in hopes of narrowing differences.
The idea of some sort of two-tiered approach to realizing Iraqi sovereignty - with a symbolic hand-over of national affairs to the US-appointed Iraqi Governing Council in the short -term, and a permanent sovereign government taking the reins after elections - is gaining ground among some Security Council countries.
Some experts see that idea as a way to get the French and other onetime deriders of the Council more squarely behind it. But the Bush administration has given no signs of supporting the idea. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice rejected the idea as potentially disastrous, and Bush said a transfer of sovereignty would be "neither hurried nor delayed."
In the meantime, prospects for getting more foreign troops into Iraq, in part to relieve US soldiers on longer duty there than anticipated, have seemed to dim recently. Turkey and Pakistan - both Muslim countries the US has been keen to see send troops - have recently added conditions beyond approval of a UN resolution to sending in security forces.
But India has remained positive about taking part once a resolution is passed, and as one UN diplomat notes, India's involvement is likely to trigger others.
In all, the speech "was vintage Bush, in that he made a strong case for his decision [on Iraq] and showed no remorse for US actions," says James Lindsay, a foreign-policy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. The president "stuck to his principles but adjusted the packaging," Lindsay says - a tack that is likely to fall flat with foreigners who "want to see the US to eat crow over Iraq" but play well with Bush's Republican base and among war-supporting independents.