UNITED NATIONS — “Bush is in town,” the woman working behind the coffee bar said unenthusiastically to her co-worker. It captured the mood in New York City as President George Bush arrived for the opening of the United Nations General Assembly, attended by heads of state from around the world.
With Bush’s Republican Party facing serious difficulties in the November elections and his administration isolated in the world community, he delivered a carefully crafted speech to the assembled world leaders, Sept. 19. Refusing to acknowledge the disastrous results of his policies on the ground in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Gaza, Bush told the 192-member body that “peace is taking root” in the Middle East.
In contrast, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan warned, “If current patterns of alienation and violence persist much longer, there is a grave danger that the Iraqi state will break down, possibly in the midst of a full-scale civil war.”
Bush’s effort to cover his record of contempt for international diplomacy and paint a rosy picture of his Middle East policies, while continuing the drumbeat for war against Iran, drew tepid applause from the world body.
Outside, on the city streets, reactions to Bush were not constrained by diplomatic politeness. Construction workers, taxi cab drivers and passers-by voiced their support for an estimated 3,500 antiwar protesters, organized by United for Peace and Justice.
“I agree with everything they say,” said Andrew Wright, a member of the Carpenters Union. “We’re against war,” said co-worker Mike Miller.
Among the protesters was Colleen Kelly, a co-founder of Sept. 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows. Kelly lost her brother, Bill, in the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Early on, she said, she saw that war would not end terrorism and she never believed that Iraq was tied to 9/11.
“Look what we have now,” she said. “According to the State Department’s own statistics, terrorist attacks have greatly increased.” Bush’s threats against Iran are eerily similar to the Iraq war buildup, she noted.
Kelly and others in Peaceful Tomorrows emphasize “people-to-people” diplomacy as one method to help end violence, war and terrorism. “The United Nations is one big important tool in the tool box,” she said.
Neteca Petgrave, an SEIU 1199 organizer, said she and her union brothers and sisters were marching because they “strongly oppose” the war. Petgrave, a former home care worker who came here from Jamaica over 30 years ago, said many of her union’s members have sons and daughters in Iraq. “One of ours lost her son in Iraq last week,” she said. “We need to end the war now.”
Petgrave said defeating the Republicans in the congressional elections this November would make a difference in the antiwar fight. “We can’t give up. We have to continue to fight.”
Meanwhile at the UN, world leaders addressed key crises, most of them caused or aggravated by the U.S.: Iran and nuclear power, Iraq, the Israeli invasions of Lebanon and Palestinian territories, Sudan and Darfur, and increasing violence in Afghanistan.
In a stinging rebuke of U.S. “pre-emptive and unilateral” war policies, Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi said, “No country, however strong and powerful it may be, can take on such complex challenges single-handedly. We need to reinvigorate multilateralism, by which I mean restoring the central, fundamental role of the United Nations.”
Many challenged Bush’s seemingly delusional portrait of an increasingly peaceful Middle East and called for steps to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. French President Jacques Chirac urged leaders to be bold enough to seek peace like “Rabin and Arafat.”
Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said poverty, particularly in the global South, is a main factor of instability and inequality confronting the world.
This year’s General Assembly agenda includes urgent issues of peace and security, economic development, human rights, nuclear disarmament and UN reform. It will name a new secretary-general and elect four new members to the Security Council to join the five permanent members — China,
Abu Bakker Qassim, wrote an op-ed in The New York Times that he was freed from Guantanamo only because the Supreme Court upheld his habeas corpus rights. Another innocent is Canadian citizen, Maher Arar, kidnapped by the CIA while changing planes in New York and flown to Syria to be tortured in the CIA’s “extreme rendition” program. He is still awaiting justice, or even an apology from Bush.
Three ranking Republican senators — John Warner of Virginia, Lindsay Graham of South Carolina and McCain of Arizona — opposed Bush’s legislation. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell wrote a letter opposing the bill. Support has also eroded in the House, and GOP leaders postponed a vote until next week. Bush is maneuvering to cut a deal, dropping efforts to gut Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions that guarantees humane treatment of captured combatants. Instead, Bush seeks to amend the McCain ban on torture to immunize U.S. officials, retroactively from prosecution as war criminals.
Retired Col. Ann Wright of the U.S. Army, who served 13 years on active duty and 16 in the Army Reserve, was in the audience as Clousing spoke. A winner of the State Department’s “Heroism Award” during her 16 years in the diplomatic corps, Wright reopened the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2001. She told the World, “All the protections in the Geneva Conventions are being gutted by this administration. I think this administration is just digging its own grave deeper and deeper in refusing to acknowledge the time-honored principles of the Geneva Conventions.”
She added, “What is most shocking is that they want to make retroactive a law that exonerates officials who have committed war crimes or violated the Geneva Conventions. That could include the president of the United States.”
Polls show that 70 percent of the people believe the Iraq war should end and 55 percent say “there are reasonable grounds for impeachment” of Bush and Cheney, she said. “It’s time for the people to take their country back. The Democrats have a golden opportunity on the war, on these illegal activities like [NSA] eavesdropping, [CIA] rendition, illegal detention and torture.”
They can win Nov. 7, she continued, “but the probability that the elections will be stolen is very high. People have to volunteer to be poll watchers and observers and be ready to take to the streets if there is any appearance that the elections have been stolen.”