Oval: Bush's Mixed Messages to U.N.

The French foreign minister called George Bush's speech to the United Nations "remarkable," gushing that the U.S. president showed "great determination." Even the Iranian president reached out to the United States by saying that both countries shared the experience of being the victims of terrorism.

No, that wasn't in some parallel universe. That was the U.N. General Assembly in November, 2001. Bush was speaking at a time when, as he put it, "many thousands still lie in a tomb of rubble." It was a time when the president could cite one of the world's leading Islamic scholars condemning those who attacked the United States. And it was a time when Bush himself launched a passionate defense of the U.N. against the threats of the terrorists and the Taliban in Afghanistan. "Last week, anticipating this meeting of the General Assembly, they denounced the United Nations," Bush said. "They called our Secretary General a criminal and condemned all Arab nations here as traitors to Islam."

Over the last five years, Bush has somewhat changed his views of the U.N. and Secretary General Kofi Annan. Instead of talking about his solidarity with the world organization, the president now expresses what he calls a West Texan attitude towards the place. As he told reporters in the Rose Garden last week, "I think a lot of Americans are frustrated with the United Nations, to be frank with you." Bush says he still likes Annan, who leaves the U.N. at the end of this year, but he doesn't talk about him as "our Secretary General" anymore.

The president has also changed his language on the biggest threats of weapons and rogue regimes. Where he once mapped out a course to war in Iraq, he now speaks more gently about the crisis over Iran's nuclear program. Addressing the Iranian people, Bush praised Iran's history and civilization before adding this peaceful overture. "Despite what the regime tells you, we have no objection to Iran's pursuit of a truly peaceful nuclear power program," he said. "We're working toward a diplomatic solution to this crisis. And as we do, we look to the day when you can live in freedom--and America and Iran can be good friends and close partners in the cause of peace."

Yet some things have stayed the same. Bush only won polite applause from the U.N. audience five years ago; the response was tepid again when he spoke there today. It's small wonder that Bush hates talking to the U.N. crowd when it shows so few signs of life. According to U.N. protocol, the leaders are supposed to tone down their reactions. Unless you happen to be Kofi Annan and you're delivering your farewell address, in which case you are greeted with a standing ovation.

The muted response is not the only constant factor. Bush made no mention of democracy or Islamic fascism five years ago, but he did talk about the threat to civilization. He also spoke eloquently about how terrorists were perverting Islam. "The terrorists call their cause holy, yet they fund it with drug dealing; they encourage murder and suicide in the name of a great faith that forbids both," he said. "They dare to ask God's blessing as they set out to kill innocent men, women and children. But the God of Isaac and Ishmael would never answer such a prayer. And a murderer is not a martyr; he is just a murderer."

The shadow of Iraq makes some lines impossible to deliver now. Five years ago Bush thanked Arab countries for condemning terrorism and standing alongside the United States. "The terrorists are increasingly isolated by their own hatred and extremism," he said. "They cannot hide behind Islam." The terrorists may still be isolated, but so is the United States. The enemy still hides behind Islam. But it also hides behind anti-American sentiment.

Bush's goals--while entirely laudable--are undercut not just by the poisonous claims of the jihadi movement. They are undercut by his own record. When he spoke on Tuesday about "a world beyond terror," it was hard not to think of his own warnings that Iraq could turn into a terrorist haven.

And when he appealed for agreement on "a world beyond terror," he reached for a landmark U.N. document: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. "This document declares that the "equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom and justice and peace in the world," Bush said.

That's the same Universal Declaration that prohibits torture or "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." It's the same Universal Declaration that promises everyone "a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him." And it's the same Universal Declaration that promises everyone charged with a penal offence "a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defense."

Bush's aides continued to negotiate with Republican senators over the interrogation and trials of suspected terrorists, even as the president was preparing to cite the Universal Declaration. For their part, those aides say they have no problem with language that prohibits "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment." They just have a problem understanding what the Geneva Conventions mean by the word "humiliating." They also suggest that you can stage a fair and public trial by allowing evidence to pass only to the lawyers defending the accused.

President Bush may be totally sincere in his belief that humiliating terrorist suspects helps with their interrogation. He may be totally sincere in his belief that classified information cannot be passed directly to terrorist suspects.

But the chances are slim that the rest of the world will follow his lead on human rights. Striking a balance between freedom and security is never easy in a time of war. It's even harder to portray yourself as an advocate for human rights, when you believe it's necessary to compromise on some of those same rights.