Bush, Chirac clash at U.N.

The president asks the world body to "move forward" to rebuild Iraq even though it didn't OK the war. The French say not so fast.

By Eric Boehlert

Published September 23, 2003 8:52PM (EDT)

Fifty-four weeks after warning the United Nations about the growing threat Saddam Hussein's regime posed to the world, President Bush returned to the U.N. today to warn the international community about the dangers of turning over self-rule too quickly to the Iraqis.

"The primary goal of our coalition in Iraq is self-government for the people of Iraq, reached by orderly and democratic means," said Bush in his address to the General Assembly. "This process must unfold according to the needs of Iraqis -- neither hurried nor delayed by the wishes of other parties."

Key among those "other parties" is France, which, in exchange for helping the U.S. rebuild Iraq, wants to see immediate movement toward handing over authority of the country to Iraqis. The White House, for now, stands opposed. Yet Bush's low-key speech, his first to the U.N. since U.S. tanks rolled into Baghdad, seemed to be an attempt to clear the air with the international body often at odds with the lone superpower bent on a go-it-alone approach. "Let us move forward," Bush urged.

But clearly French President Jacques Chirac, who spoke after Bush, is not willing to move on: "The [Iraqi] war, launched without the authorization of the Security Council, shook the multilateral system," he said. "The United Nations has just been through one of the most grave crises in its history." Leveling a stinging attack on U.S. unilateralism, the French president complained, "The culture of confrontation must give way to a culture of action aimed at achieving our goals."

In other words, compromise. It's something the U.N. has not seen much of in the last year. Despite months of back-and-forth last winter, the United States was not able to convince the U.N. Security Council that war with Iraq was justified, with France and Germany being the two biggest opponents to the White House preemptive strategy. And while Bush's speech was meant to be an olive branch to the world body, he didn't seem to be budging on the issue of ceding more control, more quickly, to the U.N. and the Iraqis in the postwar reconstruction.

"Clearly the administration is uncompromising on self-rule and what it means," says George Lopez, director of policy studies at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

That sets the stage for yet another round of U.N.-based negotiations over what should happen to Iraq, and what role the international community should play. However, unlike the run-up to war, this time the Bush administration, facing a serious collapse in the polls fueled in large part by widespread public skepticism over Iraq, can ill afford to go it alone.

"The assumption of this admonition is we're so powerful we don't need to compromise," says Kenneth Rodman, a professor of government at Colby College, and an expert on the United Nations. "That's true in terms of fighting wars. But they're involved with an occupation now, and they're dealing with political problems in Iraq that military forces cannot solve alone. I'm not sure how far the administration will go to meet countries. Will they go halfway? Or has the atmosphere at the U.N. been so poisoned over the last year?"

Today, nearly six months after Bush announced that major military action in Iraq was over, the White House is struggling with its long-term strategy for the newly free Iraq. With security scarce on the ground, infrastructure improvements badly behind schedule, and resentment growing among Iraqis over the U.S. occupation, the Bush administration now needs the economic and peacekeeping aid of an international coalition -- the type of coalition the U.S. was unable to form in its fight with Iraq.

Tuesday's anticipated speech to the U.N., in which Bush dutifully stood by his justifications for invading Iraq, including the yet-to-be-found weapons of mass destruction, served as a symbolic gesture toward negotiating a postwar reconstruction. But it was noticeably thin on details.

"They were leaving it as unspecific as possible because I don't think the administration has figured out what its best negotiating strategy is, or what its end game is," says P.W. Singer, a national security fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

"The real negotiations are happening behind closed doors, but it's important for the president to make the speech, to say, 'I really do care,'" notes Christopher Preble, director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute in Washington. He thinks the administration's go-slow approach to self-rule in Iraq presents real dangers. "I wish the primary goal of the speech was self-government for the Iraqis and exactly how that process is moving forward. The president is still underestimating the symbolic importance of the foreign occupation of Iraq. Whether it's U.S. troops or British or Polish or U.N. blue helmets. Doesn't matter to the Iraqi people. They resent the fact that their country is being occupied by foreigners."

In fact, Chirac's tough talk may still leave an opening for Bush to move forward with a new U.N. resolution. Quoting "administration sources," CNN reported that the two met after their dueling speeches, and Chirac said he won't block the resolution.

Bush also glossed over the issue of Iraq's battered internal security, but others in Washington did not. Within minutes of the speech, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told CNN, "The security problems are still severe. In my view we need more American troops."

And from the floor of the Senate, Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., perhaps the White House's fiercest critic on Iraq, unleashed another broadside, insisting, "We cannot afford to continue a failed strategy of making it up day by day. The administration needs to show a plausible plan to correct the colossal failure in policy."

Kennedy's message seems to be getting through. According to a just-released Gallup Poll, a majority of Americans (50 percent) do not think the war in Iraq was worth it, down eight points in just one week. Sixty-four percent don't think the White House has a clear plan for rebuilding Iraq, according to a CBS poll. That's a spike of 20 percent in just two weeks.

Considering Bush bet his presidency on Iraq, it's not surprising his job approval ratings have also taken a hit, dipping to 50 percent in the Gallup survey, the lowest point of the Bush presidency.

Given its timing, Bush's poll collapse may well have been sparked by his prime-time speech to the American people on Sept. 7, in which he laid out his request for $87 billion to secure and rebuild Iraq.

That may explain why Bush's U.N. speech was surprisingly slight when dealing with Iraq. During his 2002 speech, in which he challenged the U.N. to confront Iraq, Bush devoted nearly 35 paragraphs to detailing Saddam's threat. On Tuesday, the entire war and its aftermath were addressed in approximately a dozen paragraphs. (By comparison, Bush's plea for international help in fighting the worldwide sex slave trade took up six paragraphs of his Tuesday speech.)

Indeed, at times the speech seemed to have been written for a parallel universe where postwar construction had gone smoothly and American troops had been welcomed as liberators, as Bush proudly detailed how schools are being built and Iraqi children are being immunized. There was little or no discussion of the fact that American soldiers continue to die on a daily basis in Iraq, and terrorists are busy blowing up U.N. buildings when not trying to assassinate members of the Iraqi Governing Council.

"This is an administration that does not admit a wrong, so it's par for the course," notes Singer.

Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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France Iraq Middle East United Nations