September 22, 2003 | National Review Online

No Excuses

Speaking at the United Nations on Tuesday, President Bush wasted no time and minced no words. The world today, he said, faces “an unfinished war.” That war is being fought in such places as Baghdad, Bali, Bombay, Mombassa, Tunis, Casablanca, Riyadh, Jakarta, and Jerusalem. And in this global conflict, “there is no neutral ground. All governments that support terror are complicit in a war against civilization.”

This is not what the president's critics, adversaries, and enemies wanted to hear. They hoped he would sound apologetic and chastened. But he wasn't even particularly conciliatory. Terrorists, he admonished the U.N. General Assembly, “those who incite murder and celebrate suicide…have no place in any religious faith, they have no claim on the world's sympathy, and they should have no friend in this chamber.”

The president's opponents won't like that kind of talk. They'll call it arrogant. They'll say it is bruises the tender sensibilities of the distinguished representatives of the international community. But speaking frankly and truthfully to the members of the U.N. – as Jeane Kirkpatrick and Daniel Patrick Moynihan used to do – is a tradition worth reviving.

Bush took credit for the liberation of Iraq, reminding listeners that “the regime of Saddam Hussein cultivated ties to terror while it built weapons of mass destruction. It used those weapons in acts of mass murder, and refused to account for them when confronted by the world.”

He added: “The Security Council was right to be alarmed…The Security Council was right to demand that Iraq destroy its illegal weapons and prove that it had done so … The Security Council was right to vow serious consequences if Iraq refused to comply.”

What followed was a diplomatic spanking: “And because there were consequences – because a coalition of nations acted to defend the peace and the credibility of the United Nations – Iraq is free, and today we are joined by representatives of a liberated country.”

Bush acknowledged that free Iraq has become “the central front in the war on terror,” a place where remnants of Saddam's deposed regime have joined with foreign jihadi terrorists to wage a war not just against the Anglo-American Coalition, but even against U.N. civil servants. Before long, he promised, Iraqis will be trained and equipped to act in their own defense.

How soon? Bush agreed that power should be turned over to Iraqis as quickly as possible, but such a transfer, he said, would be “neither hurried nor delayed by the wishes of other parties.” (He refrained from gazing toward Jacques Chirac and adding: “N'est pas?”)

Overall, the president's speech was a clear echo of his September 2002 address to the U.N. At that time, he issued a memorable challenge to the organization. The U.N., he said, had reached “a difficult and defining moment…Will the United Nations serve the purpose of its founding, or will it be irrelevant?”

Of course, we now know the answer: It proved to be irrelevant. The U.N. was created after World War II to “take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace.” It has consistently failed to do that – from China to Cambodia to Rwanda to Srebrenica to the Middle East, the U.N. has taken no effective measures against dictators who threatened the peace, against despots who committed acts of genocide, or against rogue nations that have sponsored terrorism. On the contrary, the U.N. generally has shown great deference and respect to such villains.

It can not be repeated too often: Today, Syria sits on the Security Council. Libya heads the U.N. Human Rights Commission.

And when faced with Saddam Hussein, who had refused to meet the obligations he had accepted in exchange for a ceasefire in the 1991 Gulf War, who had violated numerous U.N. Security Council resolutions, who had filled graves across Iraq with murdered Kurds, Shias, and Sunni dissidents (has any other figure in history slaughtered so many Muslims?), the U.N. could not bring itself to take meaningful action.

President Bush went on to talk about other issues – the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the AIDS epidemic, slavery, and child prostitution among them.

But the real news was that the president stuck to his guns. He implored the international community to stand for something other than self-interest and moral relativism. He reminded the crowd in Turtle Bay that the U.N. was founded to do more than provide a pleasant venue where diplomats could wine and whine.

The U.N., Bush said, was created to undertake “great tasks,” and to take “decisive action.” That's probably more than anyone should expect anytime soon but perhaps for at least for a few minutes the president provoked some reflection about what the U.N. could have been and what a reformed U.N. might still become.

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.



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