Just before he spoke  today to the United Nations General Assembly, George W. Bush sent a discreet message to both the United Nations and the US Congress by quietly withholding payments, for the fifth consecutive year, to the United Nations Fund for Population Activities. The health of hundreds of thousands of women and children will be impaired--and many lives lost--as a result of his pandering to the most prejudiced elements of his conservative constituency.
Missing from this year's speech was some of the snide innuendo and challenge of Bush's previous comments on the United Nations, perhaps reflecting some injection of reality into his unilateral worldview. This time around, the President also refrained from making ultimatums to the assembled delegations threatening action if they did not go along with his Administration's ideas of what was good for them.
Bush's message was mainly addressed to the ostensible silent majority of moderates in the Middle East. But his words were as cushioned from the cruelty of the real world as one would expect from an Administration that is making Panglossianism  a state religion.
Up to a point, the President was in harmony with Secretary General Kofi Annan's address to the General Assembly, in that both dwelt on the Middle East. But while Annan identified the core of many of the problems in the Middle East, Bush's simplistic assessment of "the bright future in the broader Middle East" was such a caricature as to leave some listeners chuckling. Neither the elections in Egypt, nor the municipal elections in Saudi Arabia that he trumpeted, offer any conclusive evidence of the march of democracy.
"Some have argued that the democratic changes we're seeing in the Middle East are destabilizing the region. This argument rests on a false assumption, that the Middle East was stable to begin with," he said. In fact, his argument is against himself: Most of his critics will adduce that the actual and threatened military intervention of the United States and Israel are not infusions of democracy but destabilizing forces in and of themselves.
But Annan had a firmer grip on the truth in his address to the Assembly that preceded the President's. "As long as the Security Council is unable to end this [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict, and the now nearly forty-year-old occupation, by bringing both sides to accept and implement its resolutions, so long will our impartiality be questioned," he said. "So long will our best efforts to resolve other conflicts be resisted, including those in Iraq and Afghanistan."
Bush's invocation of the envoys of Iraq and Afghanistan seated in the General Assembly as representing elected governments, compared to when he spoke five years ago, may be accurate. But he was silent on the powerlessness of those governments to actually govern. The Lebanese in particular are unlikely to recognize his depiction of their "homes and communities...caught in the crossfire"--in light of the Bush-supported blitz that was actually mounted against their country. "We see your suffering," the President said, but he failed to explain why he did nothing to stop it for a long month of bombing and shelling from Israel.
His remarks on Iran were also remarkable for a selective view of reality. "Iran must abandon its nuclear weapons ambitions. Despite what the regime tells you, we have no objection to Iran's pursuit of a truly peaceful nuclear power program. We're working toward a diplomatic solution to this crisis," Bush noted, without explaining why the UN's nuclear watchdog last week reprimanded  the Administration for gross exaggeration of the very slender evidence of an actual weapons program. (After the speech, Bush was spared close confrontation with reality in the form of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad because the latter skipped the heads of state lunch, since wine was being served there. Reformed imbiber Bush suffered in silence.)
The one redeeming aspect of Bush's cartoonish tour of the Middle East was that he lowered the "terrorist" word count and more often replaced it by his latest buzzword, "extremism." But if this speech was addressed to the people of the region, it is certainly one of the most inept ever.
His invocation of a Palestinian state that has "territorial integrity" raises many questions, not least concerning his previous green light for Israeli annexation of settlement blocs and acquiescence in building the wall. Although some UN observers looked hopefully for signs of a realization that economic sanctions against the democratically elected Palestinian Authority has been counterproductive, they were not, in fact, very visible.
Hanan Ashrawi, mentioned as possible foreign minister of a new coalition Palestinian Authority, criticized Bush's "very simplified view of the Middle East." Ashrawi summed up the American President's speech, describing it as "more of the same. It contained no concrete proposals to deal with crucial issues, the boundaries, the settlement.... Right now Kofi is speaking out on the issues. I wish he had done it earlier."
"A broken record," was the similar description from one UN official. In fact, Annan, in yet another oblique, nuanced and hence unrecognized critique of the Bush Administration, identified another very tangible reason why the President's invocations of democracy may generate so much skepticism at the UN.
"Even the necessary and legitimate struggle around the world against terrorism is used as a pretext to abridge or abrogate fundamental human rights, thereby ceding moral ground to the terrorists and helping them find new recruits," Annan said.
Bush was on firmer ground on Darfur, announcing the appointment of former USAID administrator Andrew Natsios as presidential special envoy to Sudan, "to lead America's efforts to resolve the outstanding disputes and help bring peace to your land." But he pinned the strategy on the UN peacekeeping troops going in, warning, "If the Sudanese government does not approve this peacekeeping force quickly, the United Nations must act."
It will be interesting to see what size of stick Natsios is issued for his negotiations, or what form of diplomacy the White House can use to persuade China to go along with a more robust UN involvement. And if one were cynical, one would wonder whether the interest in Darfur would outlast Bush's need to mobilize conservative Christians, for whom Darfur is a defining issue, to vote for Republican candidates in the midterm elections.