President Bush's Lead Balloon

Editorial

New York Times

September 23, 2004

We did not expect President Bush to come before the United Nations in the middle of his re-election campaign and acknowledge the serious mistakes his administration has made on Iraq. But that still left plenty of room for him to take advantage of this one last chance to appeal to an increasingly antagonistic world to help the Iraqis secure and rebuild their shattered nation and prepare for elections in just four months. Instead, Mr. Bush delivered an inexplicably defiant campaign speech in which he glossed over the current dire situation in Iraq for an audience acutely aware of the true state of affairs, and scolded them for refusing to endorse the American invasion in the first place.

Even when he talked about issues of common agreement, like the global fight against AIDS and easing the crushing third-world debt, Mr. Bush seemed more interested in praising his own policies than in assuming the leadership of an international effort. The speech would have drawn cheers at an adoring Republican National Convention, but it seemed to fall flat in a room full of stony-faced world leaders.

Mr. Bush has never exhibited much respect for the United Nations at the best of times. But the United States now desperately needs the partnership of other nations on Iraq. Without substantial help from major nations, the prospects for stabilizing that country anytime soon are bleak. American soldiers and taxpayers are paying a heavy price for Washington's wrongheaded early insistence on controlling all important military, political and economic decision-making in post-invasion Iraq.

Other nations have generally responded by sitting sullenly on the sidelines. Even when they cast grudging votes for American-sponsored Security Council resolutions, they hold back on troops and financial support. With the war going so badly and voters hostile to it in most democracies, that situation is unlikely to change unless Washington signals a new attitude, and deals with other countries as real partners whose opinions and economic interests are entitled to respectful consideration.

Mr. Bush might have done better at wooing broader international support if he had spent less time on self-justification and scolding and more on praising the importance of international cooperation and a strengthened United Nations. Instead, his tone-deaf speechwriters achieved a perverse kind of alchemy, transforming a golden opportunity into a lead balloon.