A Bumpy Engagement With the U.N.

President Bush leaves Andrews Air Force Base for New York, where he will address the U.N. General Assembly today for the last time.
President Bush leaves Andrews Air Force Base for New York, where he will address the U.N. General Assembly today for the last time. (By Jose Luis Magana -- Associated Press)
By Michael Abramowitz and Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 23, 2008

UNITED NATIONS, Sept. 22 -- Almost every September since he has been president, George W. Bush has made a pilgrimage here to speak to the General Assembly. On one of those occasions, Bush forecast the tepid reaction he knew he would receive, telling then-U.N. Ambassador John R. Bolton: "Well, it's my annual trip up here to the wax museum."

As Bush prepares for his final address Tuesday to the General Assembly, there's little doubt that many U.N. diplomats and bureaucrats will be happy to see him go. Few have been fans of what they see as his cowboy style of diplomacy, epitomized by the invasion of Iraq without a Security Council resolution in 2003.

For his part, Bush has no great enthusiasm for the United Nations, which he views as a morally compromised organization that has not stepped up to challenges such as genocide in Darfur, Saddam Hussein's repeated violations of Security Council resolutions and human rights abuses elsewhere in the world, said former administration officials and others close to the president.

Still, Bush has largely set aside his feelings. He has turned to the United Nations during his tenure to bring pressure on Iran and North Korea to halt their nuclear programs, to force Sudan to stop the killing in Darfur and to secure international assistance for the political and economic reconstruction of Iraq and Afghanistan. He restored U.S. participation in UNESCO after 18 years of absence from the U.N. education and cultural arm and has pressed the United Nations to freeze millions of dollars in alleged terrorist funds.

"What's interesting is that Bush really used the U.N.," said Timothy E. Wirth, the former Democratic senator from Colorado who heads the United Nations Foundation. "I don't think he started with a feeling that the U.N. was useful. But he came to an understanding that the U.N. can be very helpful."

"Bush may go down in history as one of the largest engagers of the U.N. . . . but with a purpose, not just to go along with the United Nations," said Kim R. Holmes, former assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs. "We don't want to fall in the trap where you only are working with the U.N. if you go along with the U.N. consensus."

Yet, by many accounts, even from some in his administration, Bush has enjoyed only modest success in his endeavors at the United Nations.

Only one-third of the proposed peacekeeping force for Darfur has arrived two years after the world body authorized its deployment. Bush has secured three rounds of U.N. sanctions on Iran, yet Tehran seems no closer to halting the enrichment activities that many fear will lead to the development of a nuclear bomb. The Security Council has been unable to coalesce around a plan to bring more pressure on Zimbabwe, despite sharp rhetoric from the president and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, blamed the administration's "extreme unilateralism" for weakening U.S. influence at the United Nations. Roth said U.S. opposition to favored initiatives from allies, such as plans to curb global warming and create an international criminal court, has "left the impression they are unwilling to build alliances with allies."

"It's either follow the United States or be left behind," Roth said. "The U.S. no longer has the power or moral influence to sustain that kind of unilateral policy."

Administration officials and their allies dispute this criticism. They say the president has tried hard to work within the U.N. framework but has bumped up against natural limitations, such as the Security Council veto power granted to China and Russia. Those countries have limited the scope of U.N. action on problems such as Zimbabwe or Darfur, they said.

"I think the president has seen the United Nations as an important instrument with an important role to play," said Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador here. "He will turn to it to pursue U.S. objectives, but at the same time he recognizes that in some circumstances you may not get the support you need or the U.N. may not deliver after you turn to it."

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