Missed opportunity

September 22, 2004

IT WAS TO BE expected that President Bush's address yesterday to the United Nations General Assembly would be aimed less at the diplomatic audience in the hall than at the domestic political audience that will vote within weeks on his re-election bid.

And from that standpoint, he probably achieved what he set out to do: reaffirming the correctness of his course in ousting Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq without U.N. approval, and casting that action as part of a broader cause -- notably the widely supported war in Afghanistan -- to make the world safer by fighting tyranny and bringing freedom to oppressed peoples.

"Eventually," he said, "there is no safe isolation from terror networks or failed states that shelter them or outlaw regimes or weapons of mass destruction. Eventually, there is no safety in looking away."

Yet in once again stoking domestic security fears, even in the face of ample evidence that the Iraqi regime posed no immediate threat to the United States, the president may have missed the chance to truly engage world leaders in that broader cause.

His one new proposal -- creation of a fund within the United Nations to assist fledging democracies such as Iraq's in conducting elections, and establishing independent courts, a free press, political parties and trade unions -- was offered as a throw-away line at the end of his speech.

Mr. Bush observed that all member nations "have a stake in the success of the world's newest democracies" but gave no signal that he was serious about trying to persuade his world partners to work with him to secure a peaceful transition in Iraq, which can probably only be won with their help.

He and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell were reported to be lobbying behind the scenes for help in providing security for Iraqi elections next year. But aides indicated they had little hope of securing more than training assistance for Iraqi police, and debt relief, which had been promised in a U.N. resolution adopted last spring.

Indeed, Bush supporters scoffed at Democratic challenger John Kerry's assertions Monday that world leaders outside of the original coalition that backed the Iraq invasion are open to appeals for assistance now.

As insurgents returned this week to their grisly tactic of beheading noncombatant contractors, the security situation in Iraq has deteriorated to the point that no nation can be enthusiastic about sending its citizens there. Replacing Mr. Bush with Mr. Kerry wouldn't likely change that.

And yet regardless of who occupies the White House, the United States can't give up on making Iraqi safety and security an international project. It's not about retreating, as Mr. Bush hinted Mr. Kerry would do, but about prevailing.

The president might be more successful at securing international cooperation if he were a tad more humble, admitting the course of events in Iraq is not proceeding as well as hoped or promised. Mr. Bush apparently believes he can't risk projecting an image of weakness and fallibility right before an election he's trying to win on a record of making this country safer.

How inconvenient for reality to intrude. Yet it has, and there's no time to waste in dealing with it.

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