Three years ago, making the case for confronting Iraq, President Bush said the United Nations would sink into irrelevancy if it failed to act at a "difficult and defining moment." But, addressing the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday, the president struck a strikingly different tone, praising the "vital work and great ideals of this institution" and its efforts to take the "first steps" toward managerial and structural reforms.
A year ago, in the same venue, Bush denounced terrorists as people who believed "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 condemned terrorism in this year's speech as well, but with a twist -- he explicitly linked defeating terrorism to changing "the conditions that allow terrorists to flourish."
"We must help raise up the failing states and stagnant societies that provide fertile ground for the terrorists," Bush said.
Bush then ticked off a series of U.N.-sponsored initiatives to help promote human dignity and prosperity, saying the United States has a "moral duty" to join in the effort. In effect, Bush used the speech to marry the United Nations' goals of defeating poverty and disease with his vision of fighting terrorism by promoting democracy.
Since the start of his second term, Bush has tried hard to reach out to a world that has been dismayed with the foreign-policy choices and actions of his first term. He has traveled four times this year to Europe, the heart of anti-Bush attitudes, though polling by the German Marshall Fund has indicated that the charm offensive thus far has failed to resonate with many Europeans.
The United Nations refused to back a war against Iraq, but apparently it did not become irrelevant either. Bush's speech Wednesday lacked the confrontational tone of his previous addresses here, and he reached out for common goals and objectives. Bush even lingered to participate for the first time in a session of the U.N. Security Council and then joined other world leaders for a meal.
"May the U.N. embody the high ideals of its founding in the years to come," Bush said in a toast.
Interestingly, Bush did not mention the looming confrontation with Iran over its nuclear programs, even though the United States is leading the drive to bring the matter to the Security Council as quickly as possible. Instead, French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin -- who as foreign minister in 2003 had clashed heatedly with U.S. officials over the invasion of Iraq -- played the heavy in his own speech. He warned Iran that it faces referral to the Security Council if it fails to meet its obligations under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Unlike last year's address -- when Bush was trying to woo his conservative base during a presidential campaign -- the president did not mention trafficking in humans or the conflict in Sudan, two issues of importance to evangelical voters.
Skipping a chance to be confrontational, Bush also referred only obliquely to the Iraq oil-for-food scandal that has tarnished the world body -- and he skipped lightly over the fact that the General Assembly on Tuesday agreed to a watered-down document intended to guide the reforms that U.S. officials say are necessary for the United Nations.
Bush was also significantly less defensive about conditions in Iraq, nearly three years after the invasion. Two years ago, he all but demanded that the world join in helping rebuild that shattered nation. Yesterday, he simply said: "No civilized nation has an interest in seeing a new terrorist state emerge in that country."
Bush used his speech to explain why, in his view, democracy thwarts the growth of terrorism. "Democratic nations uphold the rule of law, impose limits on the power of the state, treat women and minorities as full citizens," he said. "Democratic nations protect private property, free speech and religious expression."
Writing in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, F. Gregory Gause III said that a review of academic literature and statistics finds little evidence that democracy stops terrorism. Gause, a political science professor at the University of Vermont, noted that the State Department's records show that, between 2000 and 2003, India, the world's most populous democracy, had 203 terrorist attacks while, China, the world's most populous authoritarian state, had none. One study cited by Gause found that "most terrorist incidents occur in democracies and that generally both the victims and the perpetrators are citizens of democracies."