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Bush U.N. Speech Eyes U.S. Voters

News Analysis by Chief Political Writer David Paul Kuhn

With six weeks until Election Day, President Bush went before the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday hoping to soften his image stateside.

Mr. Bush emphasized multilateral goals instead of speaking to diplomatic tensions that have earned him a reputation as a unilateralist.

Instead of speaking to fractured diplomatic relations over the war in Iraq, he spoke of Saddam Hussein's capture and emphasized a fund to support international peace efforts. Instead of speaking to security concerns in North Korea and Iran, he spoke of fighting for liberty and against poverty.

"He was speaking to the American public," said Bruce Cain, director of the Institute of Government Studies at the University of California at Berkeley.

"There was nothing about that speech that was an attempt to convince sophisticated European and African diplomats to go along with the American cause," Cain said. "He gave his standard 'I have a dream' speech,' which is, 'I dream we can spread liberty and secular democracy.' That speech works with an American public and not the United Nations."

Mr. Bush's 25-minute address did not confront the current disorder in Iraq, which has been the theme of repeated attacks this week by Democratic rival John Kerry. President Bush stayed on message, as he has done throughout the presidential campaign, saying Iraq was "a time of tremendous opportunity."

But with more than 1,000 Americans dead, thousands more injured and key Iraqi cities under insurgent control, the president's optimism was not shared by many in his U.N. audience.

U.N. member nations desired frankness on the unstable situation in Iraq, possibly even an air of humility from the president. Instead, Mr. Bush said Afghanistan and Iraq are "no longer harboring terrorists," a statement not fully supported by news on the ground in both nations.

"If he was speaking to his [U.N.] audience he really doesn't understand it," said Professor Shibley Telhami, a Middle East specialist at the University of Maryland.

Telhami, who was an adviser to the U.S. delegation to the U.N. during the first Gulf War, said, "At the time of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, people wanted to hear the moral authority of the world leader. Every word [President George H.W. Bush] said was weighed, was listened to. I was there. I could feel it.

"Today, when [President Bush] says human rights, what comes to their minds is Abu Ghraib. When he says there is more democracy in the Middle East what they see in Iraq is decidedly worse than before, in their own minds," Telhami said.

"When he says that authoritarian rulers are more inclined to aggressive wars he obviously is ignoring the reality that majorities see the U.S. as having waged the wrong war in Iraq. So his message doesn't resonate. People must be rolling their eyes."

Throughout the U.N. speech, President Bush emphasized common ground rather than the confrontational relationship between the U.S. and the bulk of its member nations. He did not attempt to justify his decision to invade Iraq without the approval of the U.N. Security Council.

Last week, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan sent shockwaves throughout diplomatic circles in the U.S.-led coalition when he said he believed the war in Iraq was "illegal."

With the U.S. presidential campaign in high gear, elections next month in Australia and next year in Great Britain, Annan – who is keenly aware of the effect of his words – appeared to lend support to candidates challenging the incumbents in those countries.

Mr. Bush, however, stayed firmly on message, proclaiming that liberty will be the final outcome of the war in Iraq, and referring to the nation as a "beacon of freedom." Though speaking to the lofty ideals of American intentions is seen as arrogant to much of the international community, it resonates with U.S. voters.

Responding to the president's speech, John Kerry again blamed Mr. Bush for "pushing away" America's allies.

And among the scores of world leaders attending the U.N.'s 59th General assembly, there certainly is a widespread feeling of being "pushed away" by Mr. Bush.

Aware of this, the president was less confrontational than in previous speeches before the world body. At the outset of his address, Mr. Bush said, "the American people respect the idealism that gave life to this organization," as well as U.N. staff "who stand for peace and human rights."

But the international community largely wanted more.

"There is an absolute collapse of trust in the intentions of the administration," said Telhami, who just this week held a forum on world opinion of the United States.

"In the international community, one reason they don't cooperate with the [Bush] administration is that they don't believe that its intentions are its stated intentions," he said. "And they are fearful that if the administration was helped out of the Iraq mess that it might feel empowered to embark on additional unilateral adventures, which they don't want."

Telhami said the international community wants to "prevent disaster on the one hand and prevent victory for the Bush administration on the other."

By David Paul Kuhn