Talk about a tough audience. President Bush went to the United Nations on Sept. 23 to urge the world body to take a bigger role-but still a backseat-in the rebuilding of Iraq. With critics like Jacques Chirac of France and Gerhard Schroeder of Germany looking on impassively, the president vowed to forge ahead with a timetable for democracy that was suited to the needs of the Iraqi people and "neither hurried nor delayed by the wishes of other parties."
Everyone in the hall knew exactly which "other parties" he meant. France has demanded that the United States begin to turn over power immediately, and ensure complete self-rule in six to nine months. "In Iraq, the transfer of sovereignty to the Iraqis, who must have sole responsibility for their future, is essential for stability and reconstruction," Mr. Chirac told the General Assembly shortly after Mr. Bush stepped down from the podium.
The Bush administration insists that immediate democracy in a country plagued by poverty, violence, and religious strife can only lead to disaster. Instead, the president wants to move Iraq along a seven-step path that includes a written constitution and open elections with international monitors.
In addition to monitoring elections, Mr. Bush invited the UN to help train a huge new cadre of civil servants for the nascent government and assist in drafting a constitution. He would also like to see more international peacekeepers to share the burden with U.S. troops and more financial help in rebuilding Iraq's infrastructure, but that's unlikely to happen unless the UN takes over the entire process. Indeed, U.S. diplomats paused in their work on a resolution calling for more international help until the president could meet privately with world leaders-including Mr. Chirac and Mr. Schroeder-in the days following the General Assembly.
Even with the support of France and Germany, however, the UN might not have the political will to get more deeply involved in Iraq. A Sept. 22 suicide bombing outside UN headquarters in Baghdad killed two and injured 19, just weeks after a massive car bomb at the same location killed 22, including the UN's top diplomat in Iraq. Analysts speculated that the latest attack was meant to isolate the United States by making it harder for the international community to commit to the rebuilding effort.
If that was the point, it seemed to be working. After scaling back the UN presence in Iraq following the first bombing, Secretary-General Kofi Annan remained noncommittal on the future of the mission there. In the wake of Monday's bombing, staffers were told to stay home and await word from the boss.
Mr. Annan, an outspoken critic of the U.S.-led war in Iraq, preceded Mr. Bush at the lectern in New York. He again criticized the American-led "preemptive strike" and called for a complete reexamination of the UN's role in resolving international conflicts. The situation in Iraq, he said, "represents a fundamental challenge to the principles on which, however imperfectly, world peace and stability have rested for the last 58 years."
Still, Mr. Annan made a few conciliatory gestures and left open the possibility of greater involvement in Iraq: "Subject to security considerations, the United Nations system is prepared to play its full part in working for a satisfactory outcome in Iraq, and to do so as part of an effort by the whole international community."
Whether the "whole international community" was prepared to take up the challenge remained an open question. But Mr. Bush, for his part, vowed to stand by the fledgling government of a new Iraq, which was recognized for the first time with a seat in the General Assembly. With Ahmad Chalabi, the temporary president of the Iraqi Governing Council, looking on, Mr. Bush challenged world leaders to put aside their past differences for the sake of Iraq's future: "Every new democracy needs the help of friends."