Mr Bush had a chance to ask for help in Iraq, but he chose to preach instead

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The Independent Online

Modesty has never been President George Bush's forte, not when he was a less than successful oil company director, not when he was part-owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team and not when he marshalled his lawyers to convince the US Supreme Court that it should halt the recount of the presidential vote in Florida. So it was perhaps hardly surprising that he gave little hint, when he addressed the UN General Assembly in New York yesterday, that the US is now engaged in a catastrophic war in Iraq, a war undertaken at his initiative, without UN authorisation and judged by the UN Secretary General only last week to be illegal.

Modesty has never been President George Bush's forte, not when he was a less than successful oil company director, not when he was part-owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team and not when he marshalled his lawyers to convince the US Supreme Court that it should halt the recount of the presidential vote in Florida. So it was perhaps hardly surprising that he gave little hint, when he addressed the UN General Assembly in New York yesterday, that the US is now engaged in a catastrophic war in Iraq, a war undertaken at his initiative, without UN authorisation and judged by the UN Secretary General only last week to be illegal.

Perhaps Mr Bush did not need to make even the barest nod in the direction of this awkward reality. The evidence crowded in from all sides. From news of the beheading of first one, then two, American hostages, to reports of new car bombs and ambushes in Iraq, to the painfully chronicled anguish of a British family, hoping and praying that their relative might be spared. Then the disclosure that the Pentagon had already tapped into the emergency war chest that the White House had sworn would not be needed.

These were the very circumstances, however, where a measure of modesty was called for. This appearance also gave Mr Bush an opportunity to show that he appreciated the gravity of what is happening in Iraq even if, in the throes of an election campaign, he could not go so far as to admit mistakes. Advance White House billing of his speech suggested that he might even have recognised this.

In the event, Mr Bush disappointed, as he has so often before. Instead of a measured account of reality in Iraq, he treated the ranks of national leaders gathered at the UN to a portentous and self-justifying speech brimming with cliches about "freedom" and "democracy" that glorified the American way. From his opening greeting, when he welcomed his audience to the United States - technically true, but the UN is also diplomatic territory - Mr Bush spoke from a presumed position of superiority to which he had absolutely no right.

Almost everything Mr Bush said was at best contestable, at worst downright wrong. Rather than acknowledge that the US had disregarded the Security Council majority on Iraq, Mr Bush spoke as though it had been the Security Council that had deserted the United States. The people of Iraq, he said, alluding to the 30 June handover, "have regained their sovereignty" - except that US troops are bombarding Iraqi cities more intensely than before and much of the country appears to be out of control.

"True peace," Mr Bush said, "was founded on human freedom", which he defined as entailing the rule of law, limits on the power of the state, the protection of private property, the rights of women and much else. This picture of peace and freedom, however, bears not the slightest resemblance to the situation in Iraq today. Given the widespread lawlessness, Mr Bush's call for a "new definition of security" was almost laughable.

As has become standard White House practice in everything from funding to fighting, Mr Bush muddied the distinctions between the interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. And he implied an equal, global, responsibility for both countries - accusingly implying that those countries which declined to participate in the US adventure in Iraq were falling down on their international duty if they also declined to help the United States clear up the mess (at least before the US election).

Mr Bush's wilful blindness to the mayhem his war has wrought may be most charitably dismissed as electioneering, especially as his Democrat opponent had finally come out fighting only the day before. But the UN General Assembly is not a forum for electioneering. It is, as the Secretary General showed in his exemplary address about the rule of law, a platform to the world. It offered Mr Bush the chance to banish his image as a go-it-alone gun-slinger and admit in all humility that the US needed help. Regrettably, it was an opportunity he chose not to grasp.

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