A chastened view?

September 15, 2005

IT WAS A weakened and perhaps even chastened President Bush who addressed the United Nations yesterday in what for him was a conciliatory tone.

His fiasco of a war in Iraq, bungled oversight of disaster preparations revealed by Hurricane Katrina, and record low regard among his fellow Americans have taken their toll on Mr. Bush's ability to carry off the cocky self-confidence that typically marks his appearance at U.N. meetings.

Yes, he repeated his usual spiel about fighting terrorism. But he also reaffirmed his commitment to dealing with the priorities of most other member nations - poverty, hunger, universal access to primary education and halting the spread of AIDS.

The president's remarks and last-minute concessions on the summit agreement expected to be approved Friday were not enough to undo all the damage to the process created by his ham-handed ambassador, John Bolton. And Mr. Bush failed to make any progress on his top goal of management reforms in the world body.

But he would be wise to remember that even the richest, most successful nation in the world can't always succeed just by throwing its weight around.

Mr. Bolton got a little comeuppance; he had tried to remove all references in the draft summit document to the Millennium Development Goals, which Mr. Bush later embraced in his speech. Mr. Bolton was also overridden by his boss on including a funding target of seven-tenths of a percent of gross domestic product for the world's wealthiest nations - although the United States comes nowhere near mustering what would be its share of development aid.

Irreversible damage was done, though, when Mr. Bolton arrived at the U.N. last month without benefit of Senate confirmation and proposed hundreds of changes to the summit document, reopening negotiations on scores of issues. The result was a watered-down text so weak nearly all major decisions have been put off indefinitely.

Among the greatest disappointments for the Bush administration as well as for Secretary General Kofi Annan was the failure to win agreement on structural reforms that would allow Annan and his successors to prevent the sort of corruption that led to the oil-for-food scandal.

Conversely, the brightest spot in the document for outside advocacy groups was an agreement that the international community is obliged to protect civilians facing genocide and similar atrocities. The declaration is intended to prevent the sort of diplomatic dithering that prevented intervention in the Rwandan massacre of the 1990s and which has hampered efforts at resolving the systematic extermination of tribal villagers now underway in Darfur.

Shaping a global consensus isn't easy, but is often necessary. As Mr. Annan aptly observed: "Whether our challenge is peacemaking, nation-building, democratization or responding to natural or man-made disasters, we have seen that even the strongest among us cannot succeed alone."

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