Bush Makes Pitch, But Is He Serious?

After listening to George W. Bush address the United Nations General Assembly on Nov. 10, the question is whether the Presidential suit is half-empty or half-full. Has Mr. Bush fully grasped the need to move beyond the unilateralist attitudes of his party, or is he merely mouthing platitudes that serve the needs of wartime?

The tone of the Bush speech was certainly encouraging, giving voice to sentiments that are rarely heard among conservative Republicans. It was refreshing to hear this once-parochial President say that “we”-presumably meaning the international community-“must press on with our agenda for peace and prosperity in every land,” making specific references to development, trade and investment in the global effort to contain the AIDS pandemic. “In our struggle against hateful groups that exploit poverty and despair, we must offer an alternative of opportunity and hope,” he said, without expanding upon what that alternative might be.

Mr. Bush even spoke of Kofi Annan, recently slandered by Osama bin Laden, as “our Secretary General”-a tiny phrase that nevertheless must have irked isolationist Republicans who regard the United Nations as an affront to American sovereignty. Only months ago, those isolationists were again proposing to withdraw U.S. support from the U.N., a species of idiocy silenced within two weeks after Sept. 11, when Congress suddenly agreed instead to pay more than $800 million in back dues, with $840 million more to come by year’s end.

Like his father before him, Mr. Bush has discovered that those foreigners in Turtle Bay have their uses, notably in the two resolutions swiftly and unanimously passed by the Security Council authorizing allied military operations under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter. He could scarcely have asked for a broader endorsement. And Mr. Annan’s reappointment of an ableAlgerian diplomat as special envoy for Afghanistan provided an important opening to certain key parties, such as the government of Iran, with which the United States at present has no official contact.

As a new convert to the doctrine of “nation-building” that he derided during his campaign last year, Mr. Bush also seems to understand the potential role of the U.N. His promise to work with international organizations to “reconstruct” a postwar Afghanistan was a significant departure from his administration’s previous posture, as was his clear declaration of renewed resolve to foster a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.

Yet if Mr. Bush has truly turned a new page in his worldview, his weekend speech left that page mostly blank. He said precious little about AIDS and poverty, and not a word about other contentious issues such as global warming, nuclear proliferation or debt reduction. Instead, he departed from his main topic to lecture the delegates about the election of certain rogue states to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, as though nothing in the world matters nearly as much as anything that irritates the White House.

In those respects, Mr. Bush’s appearance on the U.N. podium was a squandered opportunity. He rightly urged world leaders to attend to the threat posed by terrorists who may someday possess weapons of mass destruction, if they don’t already. He eloquently expressed the indignation felt by all decent people who witnessed the atrocities perpetrated by civilization’s common enemies. And he implicitly asked the world to accept American leadership against those enemies.

What he failed to do was to offer any reciprocal attention to the profound concerns of peoples and countries who have felt neglected, even spurned, by American policymakers. That halting approach was adequate to the moment, but eventually Mr. Bush will have to do much better.

There are reasons to believe that he may, and reasons to fear that he will not. His negotiations this week with Russian President Vladimir Putin are promising, particularly if they lead to real reductions in nuclear armaments without voiding the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. But he still seems obsessed with the chimera of missile defense at the expense of more important measures against terror, including underfunded programs to safeguard Russian nuclear materials and the endangered chemical and biological weapons treaty.

Coming from a politician reared in the stifling atmosphere of Texas Republicanism, even the most tentative nod toward a larger horizon represents progress. As a young man, George W. watched his father contend with the most bitterly paranoid currents of isolationism, and he has demonstrated his own determination not to alienate his party’s right-wing fringe. Still, if he believes his own rhetoric about humanity’s responsibility to oppose fascist aggression “decisively and collectively,” he will have to articulate a broader vision of America’s commitment to the rest of the people who share this planet.

“This struggle is a defining moment for the United Nations itself,” Mr. Bush told his audience there. In fact, it is also a defining moment for him and his administration, as well as for our country. A military victory is only the very beginning.