President Bush’s torturous journey from implacable scold of the United Nations to earnest supplicant to spurned suitor and finally to a renewed player continues apace. His inconsistencies were once again on display over the last five weeks. On the one hand, the President acts as the enthusiastic Yale cheerleader of yore, as he did at the opening of the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 21 and in the first Presidential debate last week. On the other hand, he and his cohorts at the Republican National Convention savaged the organization.
In his debate with John Kerry last week, Mr. Bush regaled Americans with his efforts to get the U.N. to help the U.S. in Iraq: “We support the U.N. effort there,” he said. And he told the assembled representatives from 190 nations at the U.N.’s fall session that the world faced a time of “tremendous opportunity.”
In a singularly upbeat manner, he asked the international community to stand by “the world’s newest democracies,” citing Iraqi sovereignty and the Afghan elections next month as evidence of a new liberalization in the Muslim world. He proposed, for example, a Global Peace Operations Initiative to be formed by the G-8 nations to supply 75,000 more U.N. peacekeepers around the globe, as well as a Democracy Fund to help underwrite democratic development around the world.
With all of this flair and burnished rhetoric, however, Mr. Bush skimmed over his problems with the U.N. He didn’t cite the charge he made two years ago that the U.N. would go the way of the League of Nations into “irrelevance” if it dared not support his policy on Saddam Hussein. He didn’t mention his decision thereafter to defy the Security Council by invading Iraq without the council’s prior authorization.
Finally, he didn’t talk about how he chose to steer America on a unilateral path, upending traditional U.S. reliance on containment and deterrence.
Even on the Presidential campaign trail, though, Mr. Bush sounds cheerful about the U.N. Oblivious to his checkered history with the body, he told an audience in Bangor, Me., “I gave a speech to the United Nations. They looked at the same intelligence I had looked at. They remembered the same history we remembered. And they voted, 15 to nothing, to say to Saddam Hussein: disclose, disarm or face serious consequences.” Mr. Bush said nothing about Secretary General Kofi Annan’s recent accusation that the Iraq war was “illegal.”
Then, of course, there is the other Bush approach. This emerged in all its fury at the Republican convention. There, speaker after speaker vowed that the U.S. under George W. Bush would never seek a permission slip from the United Nations to attack another country or crush another terrorist cell. California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger drew a roar of applause with his line that “if you believe this country, not the United Nations, is the best hope for democracy, then you are a Republican.” In his acceptance speech, Mr. Bush himself said: “I will never relent in defending America—whatever it takes.”
Admittedly, most new Presidents since the U.N.’s inception have expressed some skepticism about the real value of the organization. A few have come into office ready to circumvent it, while others have argued that it should not be taken seriously. Most, in any case, have demanded reforms at the U.N. Still, almost every American President at some point eventually comes round to the realization that the U.N. represents one more quiver—a moral one, at that—in this country’s arsenal of diplomatic weapons. Harry Truman found that out in the Korean War, Dwight Eisenhower in the Suez crisis, and John F. Kennedy in the Cuban missile crisis.
That both of America’s leading political parties have employed the U.N. for their security goals is not that surprising. The U.N., after all, came into being in 1945 as a result of a bipartisan coalition of Republicans and Democrats.
George W. Bush, however, may be the first President since the end of World War II who has demonstrated a breathtaking incoherence in his attitude toward the United Nations. He apparently has come to believe that he can both solicit the U.N. and bash it at the same time. His approach has fueled the U.N.-phobia that even now darkens the discussion of the U.N. during the Presidential election.
Mr. Bush is not the first candidate to have employed the U.N. as a foil as well as a crutch; Bob Dole did one thing as Senate majority leader and another in his 1996 Presidential campaign when he deliberately mispronounced the name of U.N. Secretary General Boutrous Boutrous-Ghali. But the President is surely the first candidate who has played the U.N. card both as a virtue and a vice and pretended that there are no contradictions in his game.