When George Bush addressed the UN general assembly in September last year, his message was blunt. The UN must either support his campaign against Iraq or be doomed to irrelevance. In the event, most countries refused to back him and, ignoring the UN, Bush plunged into war. Tomorrow, when Bush returns to the general assembly, his tone is expected to be somewhat less brusque.
Although Bush is loath to admit it, the US badly needs international assistance, troops and money to prevent its Iraq occupation becoming an inescapable quagmire. In other words, the UN has turned out to be anything but "irrelevant". And through officials like Colin Powell, Bush the heedless unilateralist is now emphasizing consultation and an agreed, multilateral approach.
Has he seen the error of his ways? Hardly. If Bush has changed his tune, it is not because he has developed new-found respect for the UN and those who opposed his war. It is because the cost of Iraq, in terms of American lives and American tax dollars, is beginning to have a seriously negative impact on his re-election hopes. It is because ordinary Americans are critical (as ever, in fact) of his go-it-alone approach.
It is because Bush's credibility, like Tony Blair's, is rapidly shredding. His admission last week that there is "no evidence" tying Saddam Hussein to al-Qaida's 9/11 attacks was a significant moment. For months, he and his top advisers have been deliberately giving the very opposite impression. As a result, a large majority of Americans did come to believe Saddam was somehow responsible for September 11. They can see now that Bush knowingly misled them.
When this realization is coupled with Bush's failure to justify claims that Saddam presented an imminent threat to the US and possessed fearsome weapons of mass destruction, it is not hard to see why trust in his leadership is eroding. When George Bush Sr broke his famous "read my lips, no new taxes" pledge, he broke the back of his 1992 re-election bid. Bush Jr's forced confession on Iraq may yet prove to be a similar watershed.
Bush's handling of the economy, and in particular the stark contrast between higher unemployment, higher deficits, public spending cuts and multibillion tax giveaways for the better-off, is increasing a national sense of disenchantment. The post-9/11 popularity bonanza from which Bush profited for nearly two years is all but spent. And the Democrats sense it. Senator Edward Kennedy calls the Iraq war a "fraud made up in Texas" and - unusually for him - he is now probably expressing the majority opinion.
As the 9/11 trauma fades, Americans are beginning to remember that the 2000 election installed Bush as a minority president. And as Bill Clinton put it in a recent speech in Iowa: "That election was not a mandate for radical change, but that is what we got. We went from surplus to deficit, from a reduction in poverty to an increase in poverty..." After 9/11, he said, "instead of uniting the world, we alienated it. And instead of uniting America, we divided it by trying to push it too far to the right." After appearing untouchable for so long, a former White House official notes: "Bush is vulnerable."
These and other considerations pose a strategic choice with implications stretching far beyond Iraq. Why should the international community gathered at the UN help Bush get out of his Iraq mess? Why not let him stew and, by withholding cooperation, possibly hasten his electoral demise?
This is indeed tempting, for another four years of Bush in the White House is an unappealing prospect. Bush bamboozled the UN as well as his fellow citizens over Iraq, pretending for at least six months that a decision to attack Saddam had not been made, when in truth it had. He made of Hans Blix's good faith weapons inspections a charade that was sure to end in failure, whatever Iraq did and whatever Blix found.
Bush's primary purpose was not enforcement of the UN's resolutions, as he said at the time. It was regime change - which, ironically, has become his only remaining justification for the war as his other claims have been exposed as exaggerations or lies. Bush's treatment of the UN on Iraq and other issues has been disgraceful. By him it has been disdained, divided, debauched. The UN as a body owes him nothing.
A second Bush term promises more, not less, WMD proliferation and more confrontations. Iraq's fate, when contrasted with North Korea's, has taught others that only a nuclear arsenal may provide protection against US attack. Yet Bush's threats against Iran, Syria and Libya and his pre-emptive war doctrine presage only more conflicts. His failure to follow through on his Aqaba pledge of a new, balanced beginning for Israel and Palestine promises more, not less, Middle East strife.
By alienating Muslim opinion, and insulting key allies, Bush has undermined the fight against international terrorism. On a wide range of other issues, from the international criminal court to civil rights to climate change to multilateralism in its broadest sense, it is plainly in the national interest of many states to see the back of Bush.
Under Blair, Britain has lost its independent voice. But France, Germany, Russia and other big powers could and perhaps should hold out for a government in Washington that is more amenable to their vision of a multipolar world. Bush's growing weakness should certainly be recognized and exploited to contain his worst excesses in the last 15 months of his presidential term. This is already beginning to happen as countries prevaricate over US requests for troops and cash.
The problem with such recalcitrance is that it does not help the people of Iraq right now, as their country totters on a knife-edge between chaos and recovery. It opens opposing states to charges of irresponsibility.
The answer must thus be to do all that is possible in terms of immediate humanitarian and technical aid to Iraq while insisting, with France, on a greatly accelerated handover of sovereign powers to a provisional Iraqi government and on primary political oversight for the UN security council. Longer-term reconstruction investments and loans and any contributions to a UN-mandated peacekeeping force should be conditional on US agreement to relinquish its stranglehold on Iraq.
Until Iraqis are able physically to control their country, and unless it cuts and runs, the US will continue to bear the main security burden. Yet as the war's progenitor, it is only right that it should. It is a price Bush should be made to pay even though, thanks to his foolishness and hubris, it is America's soldiers who pay the highest price of all.
Such a hard-nosed approach by the international community will hardly help Bush's re-election chances. It may even dish him. But it will help Iraq recover its dignity and get back on its feet.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003