When US president George W. Bush came to the UN General Assembly on September 23, there was some expectation that his tone would be magnanimous and conciliatory. Six months after the US rode roughshod over the UN by launching a unilateral war against the wishes not only of the majority of the world’s unimportant states, but also of senior members of the Security Council, it was expected that the US might come to mend fences, as if from a position of strength, but with the underlying reality that the US needs international cooperation in the administration of occupied Iraq, given the problems it is having in securing its catch. There had been hints in this direction from Secretary of State Colin Powell and other US officials, who had spoken of the need for the UN to be given a greater role in Iraq, and suggestions from other countries that they would respond positively to US approaches provided Washington was genuinely willing to restore the facade of UN authority. Earlier in September, the US had asked the Security Council for military and financial help to assist with the costs of occupation.
Instead, Bush came to New York with a belligerent and bullying speech that appeared to assume the assembled world representatives to be ignorant idiots, and was greeted with a hostile and stony silence from most representatives. Speaking just a week after publicly admitting that there was no evidence of any link between Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime and the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, Bush began his speech by invoking the ruins of the World Trade Centre as a "symbol of an unfinished war". Little wonder then that he got little sympathy when he went on to claim that the US had invaded Iraq because of the grave and imminent threat Saddam’s regime posed with its stockpile of "weapons of mass destruction"; this when the world has realised, and the US’s own Iraq Survey Group has unofficially confirmed, that in fact there were no WMDs in Iraq. In fact, Bush admitted as much when he told the UN that US personnel are "analysing records of the old regime to reveal the full extent of its weapons program." Records, that is, because there were no actual weapons to be found.
By the time Bush told the General Assembly that "Events during the past two years have set before us the clearest of divides: between those who seek order and those who spread chaos between those who work for peaceful change and those who adopt the methods of gangsters; between those who honour the rights of man and those who deliberately take the lives of women and children without mercy or shame", even the most pro-American of representatives must have been cringing.
He then appeared to gloat over the US’s military prowess and victories, saying that "the former regimes of Afghanistan and Iraq knew their alternatives and made their choices... [they were] sponsors and servants of terrorism... When confronted, [they] chose defiance and are no more." He then pointed to Hamid Karzai and Ahmed Chalabi, sitting in the General Assembly chamber representing Afghanistan and Iraq respectively, proclaiming them – the former US oil executive and the convicted fraudster and embezzler – as proof of the liberty and justice that the US had delivered to the country. Few watching would have seen anything other than two US puppets who cannot move freely in their own countries without US bodyguards to protect them from their fellow-countrymen.
He then boasted of the benefits that the US has brought Afghanistan and Iraq; claimed that the US had acted to uphold the authority of the UN; and promised that the US occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq will herald a new wave of peace, freedom and democracy for all countries and people in the Middle East. It is not difficult to imagine some of the representatives in the General Assemble closing their eyes and dreaming that they had inadvertently wandered into a routine by a particularly satirical and cynical stand-up comedian.
In fact, they would not have been so far out. George Bush is, of course, no more than a front man, a performer, for a right-wing, capitalist elite in the US; except that it would take a somewhat perverse sense of humour to find anything funny in Washington politics these days. Little wonder, then, that his presidency should be characterised not by substance so much as by performances. From his words at the site of the World Trade Centre after 9/11, to his State of the Union Address last year ("Axis of Evil", "you are with us or against us"), to his challenging address to the UN last year, demanding that it do its duty against Iraq or allow the US to act unilaterally, to the swaggering victory address he delivered on the deck of the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln on May 1this year, the story of Bush’s presidency can be traced through his speeches.
How, then, will this speech be remembered? Quite possibly, as the beginning of the end of the neo-con dream, the day that the world realised that Bush was not just an American president of considerable chutzpah, spinning a line with considerable nerve and skill, as politicians must be able to do; but in fact a megalomaniac who has lost touch with the reality that is obvious to all around him.
The US is the world’s sole superpower, and has greater power than any other hegemon has ever had. But the Iraq imbroglio shows that it cannot go it alone, and it cannot ignore the opinions of other governments. When the US declared its ‘war on terror’ after 9/11, and proceeded to invade Afghanistan, its allies watched in indulgent exasperation, understanding that the injured giant needed to hit out somewhere. When the US proceeded to take its war to Iraq, its allies tried to hold it back, for various selfish reasons of their own, got somewhat irritated by its stubborn determination, and waited for its nose to be bloodied, hoping it would learn from the experience. There were signs in the responses to Bush’s speech that the fact that even now the Bush administration appears to have learnt nothing, appears to be just as self-centred, self-indulgent and arrogant as ever, is forcing his allies to realise that Bush is a loose cannon that is a danger to them all.
This was reflected in the responses to Bush’s speech. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, who appeared to have been supporting the US drive to war earlier this year, indirectly attacked Washington’s right to wage pre-emptive war against any nation it considered a potential threat. "My concern," he said with customary diplomacy, "is that if it is adopted, it could set precedents that result in a proliferation of the unilateral and lawless use of force, with or without credible justification... This logic represents a fundamental challenge to the principles on which, however imperfectly, world peace and stability have rested for the last 58 years." To which some might ask whether precisely the same situation did not exist 10 months ago.
French president Jacques Chirac was more direct in his criticism of the US. "No one can act alone, in the name of all, and no one can accept the anarchy of a society without rules," he said. "The war, launched without the authorization of the Security Council, shook the multilateral system. The United Nations has just been through one of the most grave crises in its history."
All empires are based on a combination of ‘hard power’ – military force – and soft power, by which is meant the power to persuade their subjects and junior allies to accept their position. The US has long since lost its soft power over the vast majority of those it seeks to dominate and exploit. It now appears in danger of losing its allies too. If George Bush’s speech was the last defiant blast of a man about to defer, albeit ungraciously, to the consensus of his allies, well and good. If not, it may be seen in hindsight – unless the US is able to twist their arms again – as the moment when his allies finally lost patience and decided that the US needed to be taken down a peg or two.
If this happens, and it affects Bush’s domestic political fortunes at a time when there is growing popular dissatisfaction over the cost of the war, in both American lives and tax-payers’ money (most of it finding its way to the corporations to which Bush owes his real allegiance), Bush may come to consider himself after next year’s presidential elections to have been ill rewarded for what he regards as popular and political successes. If, on the other hand, he survives in office, and has truly learnt nothing, he may yet destroy more of America’s power and standing than just his own political career.