George Bush at the UN

Yesterday, President Bush called on the UN to work toward a “mission of liberation…from tyranny and violence” including using intelligence and financial resources to stop terrorists.

After praising “strides toward liberty” in a half dozen nations and the bravery of people in Lebanon and Afghanistan trying to achieve democracy, the President spent several minutes criticizing dictatorships around the world, with special emphasis placed on Myanmar where ongoing mass protests by Buddhist monks may soon be repressed. Bush described an expanded visa ban on Myanmr junta leaders and their families as one way to support the dissidents. He took time to detail repression, tyranny, and murder in Cuba, Zimbabwe, and Sudan.  Interestingly, he mentioned North Korea, Syria, and Iran only in passing, calling them “brutal regimes” and not mentioning what is basically his “Axis of Evil” (version 2.0) .

President Bush also spoke of hunger and disease, especially in Africa, proposing to “double our original commitment (to fight AIDS in Africa) to $30 billion” and noting that “more than half the world’s food assistance comes from America”.

Speaking of his vision of “liberating people from poverty and despair,” the President made a subtle but important statement:  that economic aid needs to be better targeted to get to the people who need it rather than going through corrupt governments. He also noted that “the best way to lift people out of poverty is through trade and investment”, making a strong argument for economic liberty by saying that “developing nations that significantly lowered tariffs saw their per capita income grow about three times faster than other developing countries. Open markets ignite growth, en courage investment, increase transparency, strengthen the rule of law, and help countries help themselves.”  He urged all nations to make “tough political decisions” in the current Doha round of trade talks and committed the US to “continue to pursue agreements that open trade and investment wherever we can.”

The President emphasized the US’s support for “a strong and vibrant United Nations” while chiding the UN for the “failures of the Human Rights Council”, particularly in ignoring obvious repression in some of the same bad actor nations he mentioned earlier while “focusing its criticism excessively on Israel.”

In one surprise that leaves all too much room for maneuver, the President said (without specifying the nature of the reforms) that the US was open to reforming the structure of the Security Council. Conservatives — who distrust the UN entirely — look to the veto that America holds.  Diluting that veto power (or giving it to other nations that, like Russia China and France) usually vote against the US in the Security Council could turn distrust into disgust.

President Bush closed his remarks with a broad philosophical exhortation of the UN to have the “commitment and courage” to work toward a much better world, a world governed by principles which were, probably not accidentally, reflections of our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution’s First Amendment.

Reactions to President Bush’s comments were relatively subdued across the political spectrum, in part likely due to minor disappointment that Bush did not react to Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s rambling talk at Columbia University yesterday.

The Christian Science Monitor noted that as in most prior years, Bush was not “universally well-received” in the chamber, but that his remarks were likely intended more for domestic consumption.  They also noted that “Bush’s tone suggested he may not hold out great hope for a sudden rallying of the UN to his perspective on the world.”

The Baltimore Sun suggested that “this sounded more like a legacy-seeking speech than a call to arms”.  The New York Times gave a basic report of the speech with little commentary, and no mention of the event was made in their political blog.

In the blogosphere, on the far left DailyKos and Huffington Post sites, the most interesting thing they could find to talk about was why an early draft of the speech included phonetic pronunciations of the names of certain foreign countries and people.

In sum, mainstream media and bloggers across the political spectrum found Bush’s speech to be a non-event, especially in contrast to the fireworks of the prior day’s news. It also added to the let-down that Venezuela’s dangerous but sometimes clownish leader Hugo Chavez decided not to speak at the UN this year. (Some who are interested in the UN only for the comic-opera nature of it were wondering how Chavez would top his statement that the podium “still smelled of sulfur” when he spoke after President Bush in 2006.

On one hand, it is interesting that the “netroots” out there couldn’t find anything to bash the President about. On the other hand, if a Republican president can make a major speech to the United Nations going into the last year of his presidency without giving conservatives anything to be excited about or liberals anything to complain about, then perhaps it may have been as pointless as much of the rest that goes on at Turtle Bay.