Calling the threat from violent extremists "the fundamental challenge of our time," President Bush on Tuesday reminded the world's assembled leaders that "every nation in this chamber has responsibilities" in the battle with terror.
Speaking in a matter-of-fact tone, Bush seemed to understand that he was not speaking to a fully friendly audience. When the US president best remembered here for going to war in Iraq without a UN blessing spoke of "transformation in Iraq," the chamber remained silent. "Iraq and Afghanistan," Bush said, were "transformed from regimes that support terrorism to democracies that fight terror."
Gloom in Washington over the deepening financial crisis confronted him in New York, too, at the assembly of 192 nations. Acknowledging this, Bush said, "I know you will be watching how we address the recent challenges to our financial system." He added, "I can assure you my administration and the Congress are working" to address the crisis in a "timely manner."
Bush made special note of Libya and its renunciation of weapons of mass destruction as he listed points of progress in the world and in the fight with terrorism. But he singled out North Korea and Iran for the challenges they pose to global security, and he called on UN members to redouble enforcement of sanctions against those two countries.
After press time Tuesday, the General Assembly was set to hear from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who even before his speech had added the financial meltdown to his litany of criticisms of the US. Citing what he called the deficit spending to finance the war in Iraq, the Iranian leader told reporters that the world can "no longer tolerate" the burdens imposed by US budgetary practices.
Bush, for his part, singled out Iran for pursuit of a nuclear program that he said remains a threat to international security.
The day before Bush addressed the Assembly, the head of the UN's nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, said Iran had again failed to provide "credible assurances" of what it claims is the peaceful nature of its nuclear program. IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei, in Geneva, said failure to do so remains a "serious concern" and feeds speculation about Iran's possible interest in weaponization.
Officials of the five permanent Security Council members plus Germany, who have led talks to end Iran's uranium enrichment program, plan to meet this week in the margins of General Assembly gatherings. But little progress is expected toward further sanctions on Iran, US officials concede. Russia and China, slow to consent to a third council resolution approved last year, are thought to be even more reluctant now to add sanctions.
Bush characterized the UN as a critical force in the 21st century – one that is uniquely positioned to meet the challenges of extremism, poverty, authoritarian rule, and a lack of human rights. But its promise is too often limited, he said, by inefficiencies and member states' failure to work toward common interests.