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."
Bolton, Khalilzad's predecessor, offered a pithier assessment of Bush's U.N. diplomacy: "He's not such a cowboy unilateralist -- he tries the multilateral route through the U.N., and you don't get squat."
Aides said that when he comes before the General Assembly on Tuesday, Bush plans to reflect on some of the lessons he has drawn from eight years of diplomacy here and will suggest ways of improving the United Nations and other multilateral organizations. "We have more to do to make them effective, and he will have some positive and constructive suggestions on how to do that," said National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley.
Bush also will attend several events on the sidelines here. He hosted a reception Monday night for world leaders; on Tuesday, he will convene a session with dissidents and meet with the new president of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari. White House press secretary Dana Perino played down tensions between the two countries over how to pursue terrorists in the border regions between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
"Innocent people here in America, in the West and in Pakistan itself are at risk because of these terrorists, and they know that they need to do more and do a better job, and that we're going to be there to support them," Perino told reporters Monday. "But we also recognize their sovereignty."
Despite efforts to patch things over the years, the Iraq war has left an indelible legacy for the Bush administration at the United Nations. Officials say relations will improve only with the arrival of a new president.
"The Bush presidency created enormous problems for the United Nations, mainly by the decision to go to war against Iraq without a Security Council mandate," said Fred Eckhard, spokesman for former secretary general Kofi Annan.
After the fall of Hussein, even as Washington turned to the United Nations for help in Iraq, it was reluctant to yield real authority, U.N. officials said. "We ended up being a necessary evil," said Kieran Prendergast, a former U.N. undersecretary general for political affairs. "They didn't actually want us to do anything. There was great disdain for the United Nations."