- In his address to the United Nations on September 22,
2003, George W. Bush muffed the supreme opportunity of his presidency.
For weeks the situation in Iraq had been deteriorating. European powers,
especially France, Germany and Russia, whose leaders opposed the war, nonetheless
saw the problems and were developing alternative strategies that might
have provided more money and troops to deal with the decaying Iraqi scene.
Increasing numbers of influential Americans and the public were questioning
the wisdom of the venture into Iraq, while looking for ways to support
American forces in the field where they are confronting increasing danger.
The United Nations organization and leadership were looking for ways to
accommodate a US request for help. The US budget deficit was headed for
historic highs, and the International Monetary Fund had issued a rare warning
about the waning strength of the US dollar. Despite all that, the portents
of the UN session on the whole looked pretty good, but Bush waded in as
if his main task was to justify the war.
- The problem that day was not to justify the war but to
convince other nations to help manage the peace and extricate the United
States from a badly conceived military engagement. Repeating the charges
about Saddam Hussein and WMDs or Saddam Hussein and al Qaida, or Saddam
Hussein and 9-11, all of which are now almost universally viewed as false,
was not the way to achieve that.
- On that ground Bush missed his opportunity. He should
have stepped up to that podium and candidly addressed the present situation.
He should have hooked his audience on the challenge of deciding what to
- Our country actually is in more trouble than it has experienced
since the end of World War II. We do not have a global confrontation with
any country, but we have non-nation state enemies, some of whom are dangerous
merely because they are serious and can command dangerous weapons. We
have a leadership cadre that behaves as if the opinions of the whole world
are irrelevant to our decisions, and we are squandering the diplomatic
achievements of half a century on a narrow and aggressive neo-conservative
agenda. We have an elite that is commanding enormous power over public
decisions and, with White House and Congressional support, is radically
distorting public budgets in their favor while undermining the very concept
of democracy. We have a society that does not really think much about where
things come from and spends well beyond its means. We are spending blood
and treasure on a military venture that should never have been. But the
foremost problem is how to extricate ourselves safely and successfully
- Iraq cannot be fixed without serious and concentrated
international help. With limited coalition support, the United States has
learned the hard way that nation building as an occupying power is a nerve-wracking
task if it is not entirely hopeless. The US team in Iraq simply cannot
overcome the Iraqi sense that the team is there only to serve purely US
interests, and that image is making enemies for us as fast as we are making
friends in Iraq.
- The official explanation is that the trouble spots are
all in the Sunni triangle of northwestern Iraq, but that area was the main
problem before the war. Here is where the US-led occupation is failing,
because here is where Iraqis feel most under attack. Here is where the
most detached and non-military international support is essential, because
the relationship with the Sunnis must become non-confrontational as quickly
as possible. To be sure basic security is a problem where people live in
poverty and fight for survival, but those problems are likely to fade with
improved overall economic conditions.
- What the United States needs from the United Nations
and individual powers is focused attention on dealing with the problems
presented by Iraq in its present condition. That requires money, skill
and most of all dedicated presence. It means that the United States has
to recognize its limitations: It simply cannot do this alone. Going it
alone or hanging dominantly out front means killing and wounding more Iraqis
and getting more Americans killed and wounded. It means a stretched out
and costly occupation.
- Iraq cannot be managed as an ego trip. It needs the
best care and attention the international community can give, and the United
States needs to help that happen. In principle the UN membership appears
ready to help, but Bush focused at the UN Tuesday on justifying US actions
to the American people, not on making a candid appeal to the UN membership
for help in putting Iraq back together.
- UN members are likely to remain ready to help because
they have a realistic view of the effects of failure in Iraq. But to get
that support, the Bush team has to adjust to sharing control, authority
and, of course, responsibility. There was no apparent interest on Tuesday
in helping pull US chestnuts out of the fire. It is time for Bush and his
team to recognize that reality and move on.
- The writer is a former Senior Foreign Service Officer
of the United States Department of State. He welcomes your comments at: