Bush to UN: An agenda for freedom

He speaks Tuesday, but will world leaders listen?

When President Bush speaks to the United Nations General Assembly here this week, he will studiously avoid Iran's President Mahmoud Amadinejad.

And Mr. Bush probably won't take up the controversial leader's challenge to the American president to face him in a "civilizational debate."

But Bush does plan to lay out his vision for the world, including an elaboration of his "freedom agenda" and the role of democracy in building global security, when he addresses the 192-country assembly Tuesday.

In that sense, the global airing and weighing of two distinct visions is already on. The president "will stress the United States' commitment to a broad international agenda that recognizes the connection between freedom, democracy, prosperity, counterterrorism, and security," according to the White House.

Focusing on the Middle East as "the main battle ground" in the struggle for freedom, according to a senior administration official, Bush will outline two tasks the international community must take on in the region: "to help people who don't have freedom achieve this," the official says, "and to help people with weak but democratically elected governments strengthen their institutions."

From his corner, Mr. Ahmadinejad – who has been busy lambasting the West and primarily the US and Britain as the major sources of the world's ills, while arguing for the rise of new world powers – will also no doubt offer his own perspectives during his stay in New York.

One question is whether the US, as the sole superpower and in particular as the leader of the widely unpopular war in Iraq, can even get a fair hearing in the world today.

"The fact is this debate has already started, and there is no way either side can think people out there – and I mean all around the world – aren't listening," says Michael Doyle, a former senior United Nations official now at Columbia University in New York. "Without it being face to face, [Bush] should take on some of the challenges that Ahmadinejad has posed to America and the West, like human rights as part of the global agenda, or the tension between sovereign rights and multilateral principles."

The US has not done enough to take the case for free and democratic societies to the world under the Bush administration, Mr. Doyle says, although he does see some greater effort in the president's second term.

The White House appears to agree that the US is already in this ideological debate, if not with Ahmadinejad himself, then with what it sees as the antidemocratic and extremist forces holding the region back.

"The president will lay out ... the bright democratic future we see" for the Middle East "in contradistinction to some who have an almost backward-looking vision for the region," says the senior administration official, who spoke on condition he would remain unnamed.

But will other world leaders be receptive to his message? A survey released by the German Marshall Fund earlier this month showed US esteem falling. It asked Europeans if the US should exert strong leadership in the world. Five years ago, 64 percent of those surveyed said, 'Yes." Today, that figure is 37 percent. At the same time, Bush will stride into the UN General Assembly hall a weakened and challenged president at home.

The current controversy in the US over the conduct of the war on terror, and treatment of detainees accused of terrorism, is a case in point. Bush wants to convince the world of the need to combat terrorism, but a growing list of prominent personalities in and out of government say his credibility on these issues is undermined if America is seen to be violating its own principles and riding roughshod on the world for its own security. And that could mean long-lasting consequences, they add, such as key countries' flagging willingness to cooperate with the US.

Bush's former secretary of state, Colin Powell, encapsulated that concern in a letter addressed to Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, in which he says the US could pay a high cost if an administration proposal to redefine the application of certain principles of the Geneva Conventions is adopted.

In the letter, which was the talk of Washington over the weekend, Mr. Powell says, "The world is beginning to doubt the moral basis of our fight against terrorism," adding that it would also endanger US troops captured by our enemies. Aides say Mr. McCain says the proposal violates "our [American] values."

That controversy erupted amid other signs that the US position in the world is politically weakened – in particular by the war in Iraq. "Iraq has become the shorthand summary of American foreign policy, and until that changes, it will be hard for the president or anyone to resonate much with the world," says James McCormick, a professor of US foreign policy at Ohio State University in Ames.

At a press conference here last week, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the leaders he visited during a recent tour of the Middle East were torn over whether the US should stay in Iraq or plan to leave. But as for the consequences of the US invasion, Mr. Annan said he encountered no similar ambivalence in the region. "Most of the leaders felt that the invasion of Iraq and its aftermath have been a real disaster for them," Annan said. "They believe it has destabilized the region."

Ohio's Mr. McCormick says that "a broader agenda," clearly parting ways with the administration's trademark unilateralist approach to foreign policy, could begin to open international ports to US initiatives – and Bush's vision.

And administration officials say that is just what will happen. During Bush's visit to the UN, he will spotlight certain countries – Malaysia, for example, as a successful melding of Islam and democracy, and El Salvador, as once torn by death squads and an insurgency but now a functioning democracy that's contributing to global peacekeeping efforts.

Bush will also host a meeting of leaders from democratic states and civil society organizations involved in building institutions in weak democracies.

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