George W. Bush’s September 21 speech to the United Nations, marked by an air of unreality and hypocrisy, was insulting to many other nations. Bush presented the United States as the world’s premier social worker, leading the fight against AIDS, poverty, child trafficking, human cloning and genocide in Darfur. At best, the Administration has a mixed record in these areas, while the United States continues to give less overseas aid as a percentage of gross national income than any other industrialized country. Moreover, the Administration has focused virtually nonstop on terrorism and Iraq, even when other countries have wanted to talk about trade, economic development and other issues.

Bush further insulted his listeners by speaking about Iraq as if the United States did what other UN members were not willing to do–namely, enforce UN Security Council resolutions. By arguing that the war on Iraq was necessary to enforce such resolutions, he ignored the irony of the situation as revealed after the US invasion: Iraq, it turned out, was in substantial compliance with UN demands to disarm. Bush made no acknowledgment of error in the US assessment of the Iraqi threat or its violation of the UN charter in going to war there, nor any acknowledgment of the chaos and destruction caused by its misguided adventure.

At the same time, Bush presented Iraq and Afghanistan as cases in which the United States was leading a noble cause to bring democracy and liberty to the peoples of the Middle East, while ignoring the problems his policies have helped cause: He made no mention of growing radicalism, heightened hostilities or the money and lives wasted. He likewise gave no sense that the United States is willing to rethink its policies and priorities, and thus offered little reason for other countries to extend significant help in stabilizing Iraq. He did give a nod toward a somewhat more evenhanded approach to the Israeli-Palestinian problem, but he started by talking about the failures of the Palestinian leadership, not the illegal Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.

The President’s speech, with its grandiose claims of bringing liberty and democracy to the world, contrasted sharply with UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s emphasis on the rule of law. “Those who seek to bestow legitimacy must themselves embody it, and those who invoke international law must themselves submit to it,” Annan said in remarks before Bush’s speech, an implicit criticism of US actions. Annan’s approach is far more likely to create the foundations for an international order that makes possible the spread of democracy than is a self-determined and selective American crusade.

Bush’s remarks stood in sharp contrast to a speech the day before by his rival for the presidency, John Kerry, in which Kerry promised to work closely with foreign leaders and international bodies to restore stability in Iraq (see David Corn, “Kerry’s Iraq Plan,” page 4), although he gave little idea of how he intends to accomplish that.

Bush and Kerry will meet in their first debate, devoted entirely to foreign policy, on September 30. Iraq is an important but by no means the only foreign policy issue facing the next President. Voters deserve to hear a serious exchange about Iraq as well as the candidates’ plans to advance peace, nuclear disarmament and economic justice. And, as Annan’s remarks indicate, we need to know how each candidate proposes to restore the United States, now widely viewed as an outlaw, to good standing among the nations of the world.