UNITED NATIONS, Sept. 21 -- President Bush's speech before the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday was the verbal equivalent of a "greatest hits" album, repackaging and summarizing the key foreign-policy themes the president has embraced in the past four years. He faced a tough audience -- many of the world leaders listening are quietly rooting for the victory of his opponent in the upcoming election -- but without apology or retreat, the president cast the war on terrorism as a defining moment that will usher in democracy across the globe.
From his first appearance before the United Nations, shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Bush has made this case. But Tuesday's speech represented a much clearer distillation of his vision. His message was aimed directly at American voters, not the leaders unenthusiastically listening to him, and appeared designed also to respond to the assertions by Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry that the U.S. invasion of Iraq has been a failure.
U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan greets President Bush at U.N. headquarters at last year's General Assembly. Annan set the tone for Bush's address by calling the Iraq war "illegal."
(Scott Applewhite -- AP)
In the speech, Bush signaled he will continue to deal with the world on his own terms. He brushed aside the United Nations' refusal to back the war -- and Secretary General Kofi Annan's recent comment that the war was illegal -- by asserting that "a coalition of nations enforced the just demands of the world." Despite the inability to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq -- the stated reason for the attack -- Bush also said: "We're determined to prevent proliferation and to enforce the demands of the world, and my nation is grateful to the soldiers of many nations who have helped to deliver the Iraqi people from an outlaw dictator."
Indeed, Bush's speech struck such a different tone than the speeches of other leaders Tuesday that as the day wore on the gulf between the Bush administration and the rest of the world appeared as wide as ever.
At its heart, Bush's vision is lofty and idealistic but may appear incomplete to others. Unlike Kerry -- who is more of a "realist" in the mode of Henry Kissinger -- Bush has been willing to upset the established order to achieve his aims. Yet he describes almost all issues through the prism of terrorism, giving short shrift to concerns such as world poverty, globalization and a growing divide between rich and poor that were often the focus of other leaders and that some argue are the root causes of terrorism.
"In this young century, our world needs a new definition of security," Bush said. "Our security is not merely found in spheres of influence or some balance of power; the security of our world is found in the advancing rights of mankind. These rights are advancing across the world, and across the world the enemies of human rights are responding with violence."
Bush, more than other leaders, sketched out a stark, almost apocalyptical view of the world, a battle between good and evil that will end only in the destruction of terrorists. He suggested that terrorist attacks are not rooted in any cause or grievance, but that different terrorist groups scattered across the globe have a common agenda and share a common hatred.
"Terrorists and their allies believe the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the American Bill of Rights and every charter of liberty ever written are lies, to be burned and destroyed and forgotten," Bush said. "They believe that dictators should control every mind and tongue in the Middle East and beyond. They believe that suicide and torture and murder are fully justified to serve any goal they declare, and they act on their beliefs."
Balanced against the focus on terrorism is Bush's fervent belief that freedom and democracy will eventually emerge in the most autocratic states, thus smothering the aspirations of terrorists. This is a controversial notion, not widely shared, particularly in the Middle East where Palestinian militants are viewed as freedom fighters. Bush maintains that democracy in the Middle East must come before the Arab-Israeli conflict can be solved, not the other way around.
"This commitment to democratic reform is essential to resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict," he said. "Peace will not be achieved by Palestinian rulers who intimidate opposition, tolerate corruption and maintain ties to terrorist groups."
Bush's language on democracy has evolved over the course of his administration. He has taken heed of complaints that democracy cannot be imposed from above, and he now is careful to note that different cultures have different ways of defining democracy and representative government. In his speech, he even suggested the United Nations -- the subject of regular attacks by Vice President Cheney on the campaign trail -- could play a role in promoting democracy by creating a "democracy fund" that the United States would help finance. The fund would help countries create independent courts, political parties and trade unions, and would fund and monitor elections.
"Finding the full promise of representative government takes time, as America has found in two centuries of debate and struggle," Bush said. "Nor is there only one form of representative government, because democracies, by definition, take on the unique character of the peoples that create them. Yet this much we know with certainty: The desire for freedom resides in every human heart."
Bush's own actions have sometimes undercut his rhetoric. He has repeatedly expressed his admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin, even as Putin has slowly strangled democratic institutions. He also remains a strong supporter of Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who took power in a coup. After giving his speech, Bush met in the afternoon with Musharraf at the United Nations -- just days after Musharraf signaled he would break his promise to retire as army chief of staff.