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The President’s U.N. Speech on Iraq

September 23, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: And so we take a look behind the words and opinions offered by those three world leaders today with four leading foreign affairs columnists for American newspapers: Jim Hoagland of the Washington Post, Trudy Rubin of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Andres Oppenheimer of the Miami Herald and Dan Sneider of the San Jose Mercury News.

So, Jim Hoagland, what were those three men today, Kofi Annan, Jacques Chirac and President Bush, attempting to do? What were they trying to do today?

JIM HOAGLAND: Well, surprisingly enough, I think all three were trying to reach some common ground, some common points. But they were all operating — all three of them were operating within their own system and within their own experiences and political needs. Kofi Annan’s speech I think was the most interesting of the three.

He was critical of President Bush’s doctrine of preemption but he didn’t dismiss it. He pointed out that all of the world has to have the same concerns that the United States does about terrorism, all countries rich and poor are affected by terrorism.

And so he called for a new dialogue, a new opportunity to shape a real reflection about terrorism and about the use of force in a situation where there are early means of authorization of sanctions against terrorism to contain terrorism, rather than going along with the existing system.

President Bush, of course, offered a very vigorous defense of his decision on Iraq but at the same time he talked in terms of a timetable to turn over power to the Iraqis, he hailed the fact that the United Nations had seated the Iraqi delegation and tried to find some common ground also with President Chirac who talked about a realistic timetable.

President Chirac was the most pointed of the three, the most political of the three, addressing very much his domestic audience and refusing for a moment to admit a mistake. But at the same time he reached out toward the United Nations and to some extent toward the United States.

GWEN IFILL: Trudy Rubin, when President Bush went to the General Assembly last year, he was basically saying that the U.N. was on the verge of irrelevance if it didn’t support U.S. action in Iraq. There was a different tone today, wasn’t there?

TRUDY RUBIN: I think there was, but I’m not sure that the way he delivered his message will get that point across to U.N. members. One of the most interesting things I thought was that the president didn’t mention Iran or North Korea, but he did talk about the need for new U.N. Resolution to deal with non-proliferation.

What this indicated to me is that he understands you can’t do a preemptive strike against every rogue nation. And he is looking for a way to do a diplomatic containment or prevention of those countries getting nuclear weapons. But what is worrisome is that there is such a fear of preemption, there’s such a nervousness about the Bush approach that I’m not sure he can get the cooperation he needs to go to the United Nations for that.

So I sensed in his talk a recognition that the U.N. could be useful, but I’m not sure that his overall approach and his overall tone, no apologies, no quarter, preemption is right, is going to get the reaction from U.N. members that he needs, and I also think that this conflict with Chirac overshadows the real need for change within the United Nations and maybe undercuts it as well as undercutting the possibility for a useful U.N. role in Iraq.

GWEN IFILL: Dan Sneider in addition to talking about preemption as Trudy Rubin just alluded to, the president also cast his justification for U.S. action in Iraq in the way he has been lately casting it to the American people. That’s talking about the war against terror and characterizing Saddam Hussein as an ally of terror. Did you pick up on that? Did that seem significant to you?

DAN SNEIDER: Well it seemed significant in the sense that the president framed his entire discussion for the United Nations as a response to the events of 9/11. And I think that in part was an argument he was making maybe not so much to the people in that room but to the American people for whom the questions of the justifications for this war are arising again.

And I have my own questions about stating, as the president did, that Iraq is the central front now in the war on terror. There’s no question that we’re facing tremendous resistance and some of it of a terrorist nature but I wonder if the central front might not be located still perhaps in Afghanistan on the borders between Afghanistan and Pakistan where we’re still pursuing the al-Qaida leadership and the al-Qaida organization.

And I think that there are many people out there in the world as well as the United States who share… who don’t share the president’s characterization of Iraq as being now the focus of the war on terror.

GWEN IFILL: Andres Oppenheimer, what do you think about that characterization?

ANDRES OPPENHEIMER: Yeah, I think it’s pretty accurate. What I saw happening today is three people talking past each other. It’s pretty much of a repetition of what we’ve been seeing over the past year. If you look at what foreign newspapers are saying, most of them are centering on the U.N. reform, on the issue of whether or not the U.S. should act unilaterally, et cetera, et cetera — pretty much the issues that Kofi Annan talked about today and yet President Bush talked about a totally different issue.

I agree he was talking to a domestic audience. He was sort of saying we did the right thing, we had to react, we had to act unilaterally but he did not address the two issues that most of the world was interested in: one U.N. reform, which means the U.N. Security Council, the people who make these decisions are still the same five who were running the world 50 years ago. The world has changed… the U.N. has changed from 51 members to 199 members, 191. And we still have the same system as we had 50 years ago. The second issue which Kofi Annan articulated today is whether or not the U.S. should act unilaterally. Bush did not address any of them.

GWEN IFILL: So Jim Hoagland, do you agree? Were they all talking past each other and not actually get to go the heart of the questions before the United Nations right now?

JIM HOAGLAND: I think they talked past each other on the big issues that Andres has just referred to but I think it’s important to note that President Bush in his speech did call for an expanded U.N. role. He specifically said that the United Nations can be very helpful in developing a constitution, in training civil servants, and in….

GWEN IFILL: Is that the role the U.N. has been asking for or is that just a small concession on the United States’ part?

JIM HOAGLAND: I think this is the role that the United Nations can constructively play. I think it’s very unrealistic to think that you’re going to have a large number of foreign troops, certainly you’re not going to have U.N. blue helmets. Kofi Annan has made that very clear that the United Nations is not capable of taking on a huge security challenge that Iraq represents.

So I think the president was fairly realistic in outlining tasks that the United Nations can constructively accomplish and would be wise to do so. One of the things that we have to note also is that Kofi Annan is under a lot of pressure in his own system from his own people to essentially cut and run and get out of Iraq, not to have the United Nations cooperate with the coalition, the occupation forces there.

So far he’s resisting. I think his speech today… the architecture of his speech today was an elegant balance of trying to stay involved at the same time while pointing out very serious problems that the occupation has developed.

GWEN IFILL: Trudy Rubin, let’s pick up on that. Kofi Annan said today that the U.N. is at a fork in the road. If it is at a fork in the road and you have two strong Security Council members like the United Nations and France who seem to be not seeing eye to eye to put it mildly, what happens to that fork? Does everyone just stay frozen in place?

TRUDY RUBIN: I think that’s a real danger. And I think that because the two positions of the U.S. and France are so different that it might prevent the U.N. from being able to do what it can usefully do. I mean U.N. reform is a big issue. Kofi Annan and previous U.N. leaders have been trying to get reform of the Security Council for a decade now. It’s unlikely to happen because those countries that have the veto including France are unlikely to be willing to make the concessions necessary — for example, having one EU seat instead of more than one European seat.

But there are things that the U.N. can do. And one of the things I found interesting about today is that the U.S. seems to be opposing one particular thing because Chirac advocates it even though it might be useful. And that’s a transfer of sovereignty, a symbolic transfer of sovereignty to Iraqis fairly soon even though elections could be held much later than Chirac is calling for, which is an unrealistic time frame next spring.

Now the Iraqi governing council itself is asking for that transfer of sovereignty which would help legitimize it at home and would give a longer breathing space for institutions to be developed but because Chirac is asking for it and because he’s talking about the U.N. being involved in the transfer, it seems that Bush is automatically opposing it. And I’m afraid that kind of game playing may undercut things that the U.N. can usefully do.

GWEN IFILL: Dan Sneider, does it sound as if there is some game playing going on to you especially on this timetable of handing over power or sovereignty?

DAN SNEIDER: Well, I’m at a loss to understand why it is we can’t do what Trudy just suggested, that is, state clearly a timetable for the transfer of sovereignty and begin to shift authority to the Iraqi governing council at this point. And I think if you look outside of the United States– and I recently have been to two countries, India and South Korea that are considering large numbers of troops to Iraq — that is really the crucial question for them.

That is, that they do not want to lend themselves to a situation in which the United States appears to be, to the Iraqi people and to the rest of the world, an occupier. And I think the transfer of sovereignty and of authority is the crucial measure that allows them perhaps to make the decision to really provide significant support to the American effort in Iraq. And I think if we don’t do that, then we can’t expect to get that kind of support. We’re going to bear the burden of this situation in Iraq largely on our own.

GWEN IFILL: Andres Oppenheimer, I think it was Trudy who mentioned earlier that we never heard the names of the countries, North Korea or Iran today, even though the president did allude to rogue nations with access to weapons of mass destruction. Do we think there is something significant in his failure to mention either of those countries by name?

ANDRES OPPENHEIMER: No, I think he did it because he wanted to emphasize the good things and he wanted to sort of dispel any fears by the people sitting in that room that the U.S. would do another action like Iraq. All in all, he emphasized the positive. He talked about, you know, all the good things the U.S. is doing. He said we are against slavery. He said we are against sexual terrorism. He said we are doing all kinds of good things for the kids in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It was largely as Jim and Dan and Trudy said — a speech for domestic consumption. I talked to two or three ambassadors who were sitting in that room who said it wasn’t a bad speech. He didn’t say anything outrageous but it was disappointing, both of them said, because it didn’t address the key issues most of the world is interested in which is whether or not the U.S. will give, you know, extend an olive branch to its adversaries and start again the road to a multilateral relationship with them and whether he will do something for U.N. reform.

These countries feel very strongly. You will see tomorrow in their headlines that the U.N. is outdated, that the U.S. and Britain and France have too much power and the emerging powers like India, like Brazil, like Mexico have too little power. That’s the big issue much more than Iraq in many of these countries.

GWEN IFILL: You know, coming back to where we started, Jim Hoagland, and Andres just mentioned it, both Chirac and Annan talked about multilateralism and the role… the importance that the United Nations keep that alive. It’s something the president maybe paid attention to only in a glancing way. Is that significant?

JIM HOAGLAND: I think you have to judge it as significant. I think it was a good speech. Certainly by the standards most presidential addresses to the United Nations, it was a good speech. It doesn’t match President Bush’s speech last year which was so dramatic and so well thought out.

Here I think he dealt with his own case very well. But he did miss the opportunities to engage Kofi Annan’s idea about finding a way to accommodate America’s concerns about terrorism and America’s enormous power in the system within the international community. He missed that opportunity and perhaps a couple of others as well.

GWEN IFILL: Jim Hoagland, Trudy Rubin, Andres Oppenheimer, and Dan Sneider, thank you all very much.