- The Washington Times - Friday, September 26, 2008


President Bush and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad crossed swords with dueling speeches for the last time at the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday.

Mr. Ahmadinejad gloated over America’s problems. Mr. Bush seemed to be far away from it all. Perhaps in his mind he was already back in Crawford, Texas, dictating his memoirs.

For an institution that has been so often reviled and dismissed as irrelevant - and whose actual track record in dealing with crises from Somalia to Rwanda to Darfur has indeed been execrable - the United Nations continues to show surprising durability.

The League of Nations was dead on its feet after only 20 years. The United Nations continues to stagger along after more than 60 years.

The main reason for this is the veto power enjoyed by the five real great powers who hold permanent seats on the U.N. Security Council - the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France.

That veto means that the Security Council at least reflects many of the military and economic power realities in the world, although obviously far from all of them.

However, the annual jamboree of the General Assembly session every September also has become a global political colosseum in which the leaders of the world turn up to strut their stuff and hawk their policies to a global audience.

Mr. Bush this year would have been better advised not to go. It is one thing for a U.S. president to speak with dignity at the U.N. General Assembly with his last months of office running out when things are running smoothly and he has a dignified record he can look back upon.

It is entirely another thing to do it when his administration and both houses of Congress are working day and night on critical legislation to restore national and international confidence in the U.S. financial system.

As a result, Mr. Bush set himself up for a petty putdown from Mr. Ahmadinejad that will play well in Iran and with America’s many enemies around the Middle East. The Iranian president gave the U.S. leader a highly visible thumbs down during Mr. Bush’s speech. That kind of childish behavior ordinarily would backfire on Mr. Ahmadinejad.

But it carried considerably more symbolic clout as Mr. Bush was lecturing the rest of the world on how to solve their problems when his own economic woes at home had just exploded out of control.

Mr. Bush hit his usual key talking points. He urged increased and continued sanctions on North Korea and Iran to curtail their nuclear programs. He praised the growth of democracy in other parts of the world and criticized Syria and Iran for supporting terrorism.

On paper, it was vintage Bush. But the president delivered it like a robot on remote control. His heart wasn’t in the delivery. The speech seemed rather emotionless. The real Mr. Bush wasn’t there. He already had migrated to another place.

Just as there was no passion in his speech, there was no grief, frustration or regret, either. The problems he had caused or failed to solve didn’t worry him. Other people could take the blame for having to deal with them.

Mr. Ahmadinejad, by contrast, was arrogant, offensive and cocky, but he was also most certainly “there.” The Iranian leader gloated that the “American empire” was ending. He blamed a few “bullying powers” for trying to have Tehran’s nuclear efforts reined in.

He also said “a small but deceitful number of people called Zionists” were dominating financial and monetary centers and “the Zionist regime” - his usual offensive code-speak for Israel - was on a “steady slope to collapse.”

Mr. Bush’s speech appears to have made even less impact in his own country than around the world. The president, despite his master’s in business administration from the Harvard Business School (the first U.S. leader ever to have one), already has seemed passive and easily led on the great financial crisis.

Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke have been not just the administration’s front-men in dealing with the crisis - they have been in effect the acting presidents crafting the policies to contain it.

Neither Mr. Bush nor his veteran vice president, Dick Cheney, has been anywhere to be seen.

The detached, shadowy Mr. Bush who went through the motions of his speech at the United Nations on Tuesday was the same rapidly receding, ghostly figure who already is evaporating in the White House.

Mr. Ahmadinejad still thinks he has a future on the world stage, however brief, dangerous or delusional it may prove to be. Mr. Bush already has retreated to the more appreciative audience of his own imagination.

Those were the messages the two leaders sent in their contrasting appearances on the world stage Tuesday.

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