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Assessing the president's U.N. speech.


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On Tuesday, President George W. Bush addressed the General Assemby of the United Nations. We asked Joshua Muravchik from AEI, Brett Schaefer from Heritage, and Claudia Rosett from the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies to weigh in on the significance of the address.

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Joshua Muravchik
In his speech to the General Assembly, President Bush showed what the U.N. should be, a platform from which the United States can speak truth to powerlessness. In contrast to the suffocating banalities that fill the air at the General Assembly, Bush’s forceful advocacy of freedom — and his willingness to speak plainly about the freedom deficit in the Middle East–was a breath of fresh air.

In his peroration Bush’s mentioned a public letter he received from a group of Arab and Muslim intellectuals. It is being circulated by the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy and already has nearly 100 signatures. The purpose of the letter is to pressure Bush not to retreat from his pro-democracy stance. The signers have read various acts by the administration to signal a return to “realism” in the wake of the electoral triumphs of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.

The clear focus of Bush’s speech to the U.N., like that of his television address of a week ago, demonstrates that the president is unbowed on his pursuit of democratization. The fact that such a large and prominent group of Middle Eastern figures would sign the letter shows that this policy continues to reverberate in the region regardless of the low approval ratings for Bush and America in regional public-opinion polls.

 – Joshua Muravchik is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Brett D. Schaefer
The president chose to focus his General Assembly address on rejecting repression and extremism and seizing the opportunities to expand freedom, human rights, and self determination. Surprisingly, the president made little direct reference to the United Nations. Perhaps this reflects a lack of confidence in the organization after its repeated failures, but I wish that the president had found an opportunity to highlight the stalled U.N.-reform effort and the many problems that continue to plague the organization as these problems contribute to the failure of the U.N. to effectively address the many responsibilities place upon it.

However, it is easy to see that the speech was drafted with a single message with little room for other issues. Will this message change things at the U.N.? Doubtful. Few people fully appreciate the challenge posed by the U.N. membership. Less than half of the U.N. membership is considered free by Freedom House. Less than half are considered free or mostly free in the Index of Economic Freedom published by the Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal. Quite simply, most of the U.N. membership considers the president’s message an inappropriate intervention into their internal affairs. Worse, authoritarian nations like China, Cuba, Iran, and Venezuela wield their considerable influence to undermine the efforts to make the U.N. more effective in promoting freedom. Perhaps the best illustration of this deplorable situation was the Sudanese delegation, secure in their confidence that China and Russia will continue to shield them from U.N. sanction or intervention, smirking when President Bush referred to the genocide in Darfur.

In recognition of this reality, the president wisely targeted his speech not to the assembled leaders, but to their people. All too often, people around the world hear about American policy and intentions second hand through the filter of international media or repressive governments. The president’s General Assembly speech was a rare opportunity to circumvent that filter and appeal directly to the people in repressed countries. He expressed sympathy for their condition and expressed the intent of the United States to assist them in improving their lives. It was a powerful message and a deft attempt at public diplomacy by an Administration that frequently seems incapable of communicating effectively. It is hard to say if today’s speech will have the desired result of bolstering America’s image and enhancing appreciation of its policy around the world, but it is a long-overdue acknowledgement of an ongoing problem.

 – Brett D. Schaefer is Jay Kingham Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs at the Heritage Foundation.

Claudia Rosett
President Bush said so many of the right words. He was so right to address some of those words not to the assembled “excellencies” of the General Assembly, but directly to the people of Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Iran, Syria, and Darfur. In his basic message about the nature of freedom, and the need for it, he was — as he has been for years now — so very right. And yet, his speech at the United Nations rang hollow.

Why? Because Bush kept trying to find things to praise about the U.N. itself, as a partner in achieving his vision. That would be the same unrepentant, unreformed, corrupt, and dysfunctional U.N. that opposed him over Iraq, failed to keep peace in Lebanon, has failed to stop genocide in Sudan and is failing spectacularly to stop Iran’s nuclear-bomb program. No doubt diplomacy demands a certain amount of polite fiction, but Bush more than discharged that obligation later in the day — with his bizarre toast in praise of Secretary-General Kofi Annan, over lunch. The U.N., with its ranks of despots, its ingrown and unaccountable bureaucracy, and now its platform for the messianic musings of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has repeatedly proved itself part of the problem, not the solution. To champion the cause of freedom while praising today’s U.N. is a very mixed message.

 – Claudia Rosett is a journalist-in-residence with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.



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