Poseurs and parasites at the UN

President Bush and his critics are as bad as each other.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

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According to anti-war commentators, this week’s events at the fifty-eighth United Nations General Assembly in New York provided further evidence that the Bush administration is hell-bent on building an Empire and remaking the world ‘in its own image’. One radical commentator claimed that Bush’s speech – in which he appraised the things that have been ‘achieved’ in Afghanistan and Iraq to date – was ‘arrogant’, full of ‘tone-deaf rhetoric’, and implicitly aimed at telling the UN that it should ‘do what it is told’ (1).

In contrast to Bush’s bluster, many have praised French president Jacques Chirac and UN secretary-general Kofi Annan for doing their bit to thwart America’s dreams of Empire. Chirac used his address to the General Assembly to criticise the haste with which the war in Iraq was executed, claiming that it ‘undermined the multilateral system’ (2). Annan was praised by one writer for the way in which he ‘trounced Bush’ in his ‘distinctively quiet-spoken manner’, by criticising ‘the Bush administration’s foreign policy doctrine of unilateral pre-emptive strikes’ (3).

This reading of what took place at the General Assembly – with Empire-hungry Americans on one side and principled critics on the other – bears little relation to reality. In truth, Bush’s sheepish speech highlighted America’s increasing defensiveness about its global role. Far from seeking to remake the world in its own image, America appears uncertain about what its image should be and cautious about impressing itself on the world. And far from taking an independent stand against US domination, Chirac, Annan and the rest merely fed off American defensiveness, like political parasites on an increasingly exposed administration.

Bush’s speech was not the gung-ho declaration of American interests that some have claimed. Instead, he sought to define America and its mission by what it is not, rather than by what it is – by what it is opposed to, rather than by what it stands for and apparently hopes to proselytise about. ‘By the victims they choose and by the means they use, the terrorists have clarified the struggle we are in’, said Bush. ‘Events during the past two years have set before us the clearest of divides: between those who seek order, and those who spread chaos.’ (4) What kind of Empire-builder needs handfuls of terrorists – and the scrappy, bloody ‘means they use’ – in order to clarify his struggle and define his mission?

Nor was there much evidence in Bush’s speech that America intends to follow the unilateral route, by going it alone on the world stage. As one European diplomat admitted in surprise, ‘There was no cowboy talk’, but rather talk of ‘working together’ (5). The Iraq war may not have received the backing of the UN Security Council, but Bush repeatedly namechecked the legal and moral authority of the UN for the overthrow of Saddam’s regime. ‘The Security Council was right to demand that Iraq destroy its illegal weapons’, he said. ‘The Security Council was right to vow serious consequences. And because there were consequences, because a coalition of nations acted to defend the peace and the credibility of the UN, Iraq is free….’ (6)

This referencing of the UN’s authority has been a recurring theme in America’s justification of its global role. For all the anti-war claims that Bush and co kicked the UN to the kerb – pushing it aside in the run-up to Iraq in order to get on with their unilateral war – in fact the administration has returned to the UN again and again over the past year, in search of some kind of moral authority. No doubt there are hawks who despise the UN and would rather America did its own thing. But in the real world, the USA has hidden behind the UN and its ‘coalition of the willing’ over Iraq, describing itself, in the words of Colin Powell, as simply ‘a nation that is part of [a] great effort’ (7).

The events at the General Assembly provided a snapshot of the uncertain beast that America has become. Fresh from his effectively unilateral war in Iraq, Bush described the Iraqi venture as an ‘international effort’ that helped to ‘defend the credibility of the United Nations’. Addressing the General Assembly as the most powerful man on Earth, Bush talked up the small terrorist networks that ‘all nations’ must work together to oppose. Bush’s speech revealed an America aware of its dominant position and global power – but increasingly cautious about acting on that power, or doing anything that might upset the status quo and rattle the ‘international coalition’ (8).

Indeed, it is this defensiveness on America’s part that drives and sustains its critics in the UN. Chirac, Annan and others may have won accolades for their criticisms of America over Iraq – but theirs is not an independent or principled position. Rather, they opportunistically pick at America’s own uncertainty, throwing the Bush administration’s doubts back in its face as a ‘critique’.

America shoulders much of the responsibility for this kind of chancers’ criticism. Its curious relationship with the UN over the past year – where Bushies have sometimes criticised the UN for its ‘inaction’ and threatened to ignore it, while constantly going back for support and authority – has both irritated UN members while giving the UN a certain sway over America’s proposed actions in Iraq. It is largely America’s desperate search for multilateral support, for a ‘coalition of the willing’, that has emboldened its prospective supporters on the UN to play off America’s sense of isolation by raising issues and doubts about the action in Iraq.

Consider Chirac. Only the truly naive could imagine that France’s criticisms of America’s war in Iraq are driven by anti-imperialist sentiments. France was involved in policing (that is, bombing) the no-fly zone of northern Iraq until 1996, and southern Iraq until 1998. The French are not averse to taking unpopular, unilateral action abroad – they currently have 8000 troops overseas, including 3000 in the Ivory Coast, and have offered to send troops to train an Iraqi police force if and when the UN takes the reins in postwar Iraq. Far from standing up to American war and aggression, France has cynically adopted the role of America’s ‘no man’.

In his speech to the General Assembly, Chirac made two swipes in relation to America’s war in Iraq – that America had effectively executed it alone, and that US forces should ‘hand over’ Iraq sooner rather than later. Yet both of these points simply feed off America’s own doubts about its Iraqi venture. Chirac said, ‘In an open world, no one can act alone in the name of all’ – echoing a similar point made by the Bush administration itself in its cagey National Security Strategy of September 2002: ‘No nation can build a safer, better world alone.’ (9) Chirac called for a ‘rapid transfer’ of power to Iraqis – again feeding off the Bush administration’s stated aim of ‘handing power to the Iraqis’, and its muted desire to get out of Iraq rather than get bogged down (10).

Likewise, Kofi Annan questioned America’s notion of ‘pre-emptive foreign policy’, raising concerns that there could be a ‘proliferation of the unilateral and lawless use of force’ (11). Again, it is America’s own cautiousness that has made unilateralism into the dirty word of international relations. Far from arguing for the right to act alone in its own interests, the Bush administration has constantly rebuffed accusations that it is gung-ho and unilateral. ‘We do not seek an Empire’, said Bush earlier this year, claiming that states around the world ‘work better as a posse’ (12). Like Chirac, Annan milks America’s uncertainty in an attempt to score some international points at the Bush administration’s expense.

There was no principled divide at the UN General Assembly. Bush, like a moral coward, sought to justify his war in Iraq by hiding behind the fig-leaf of internationalism – while his critics picked off American doubt, like hyenas around a rotting carcass.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) Annan trounces Bush at UN, Ian Williams, Alternet, 23 September 2003

(2) Chirac condemns unilateral force, Barnaby Mason, BBC News, 23 September 2003

(3) Annan trounces Bush at UN, Ian Williams, Alternet, 23 September 2003

(4) President Bush addresses United Nations General Assembly, George Bush, The White House, 23 September 2003

(5) From Bush, a plea to ‘move forward’, Michael Moran, MSNBC, 23 September 2003

(6) President Bush addresses United Nations General Assembly, George Bush, The White House, 23 September 2003

(7) See The wishful and the willing, by Brendan O’Neill

(8) President Bush addresses United Nations General Assembly, George Bush, The White House, 23 September 2003

(9) The National Security Strategy of the United States of America (.pdf 358 KB), The White House, September 2002

(10) See After Majar al-Kabir, by Brendan O’Neill

(11) Annan trounces Bush at UN, Ian Williams, Alternet, 23 September 2003

(12) See Don’t mention the U-word, by Brendan O’Neill

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Topics Politics


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