BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. This week in New York, representatives from 191 nations gathered for the 59th meeting of the United Nations General Assembly. It is tradition for the American president to welcome the General Assembly, and President Bush did just that, defending his decision to go to war in Iraq for about 24 minutes. The reception was described as "polite," despite the president's strained, at best, relationship with the United Nations. His remarks come less than a week after UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said the US-led invasion "was illegal." Martin Walker is editor in chief of United Press International. He's tracked global response to the president's speech. Martin, welcome back.
MARTIN WALKER: Hello there. Nice to be back on the air with you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now in the American press, we had David Fromkin from the Washington Post who wrote that the speech could be described as: misguided, simplistic, imperious and trigger-happy -- or, it could be described as strong, resolute, unyielding and unapologetic, depending on your point of view and your view of the president and the war in Iraq. Do you see a contrast there between the American coverage and that in Europe and the Middle East?
MARTIN WALKER: Absolutely. Almost all of the American newspapers, even ones that were critical, focused upon President Bush, upon what he'd said, upon his insistence that this was not a time to retreat but to prevail, that he would stand by Iraq and, and Afghanistan all the way through the elections, and that his overall grand strategy to try and bring democracy to the Arab world was still his guiding star. The rest of the world took an entirely different approach, whether you looked at the Financial Times in Britain, the Times in Britain, if you looked at Le Monde or Figaro in France, you looked at Suddeutsche Zeitung in Germany, if you looked at the Middle Eastern press -- what you got was not just Bush alone, but a duel -- a duel between Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary General, and President Bush. The way it was put in Le Monde was: "deux visions du monde s'affrontent devant l'ONU" --two visions of the world confront each before the United Nations. The Financial Times: "Bush and Annan Are Going Head to Head." Italy's La Repubblica said that we're experiencing "a new Ice Age in international relations, with the United States on the one side and the rest of the international community on the other." From Egypt, from El-Gomhuriah, which is an ally of America, here is a fascinating quote: "Annan's confirmation that war in Iraq was illegitimate and unlawful amount to a clear signal for the international community to do its best to support the courageous Iraqi resistance."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Wow.
MARTIN WALKER: That's strong stuff.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, what about the big conservative papers, those who have stood pretty staunchly with Bush throughout the war?
MARTIN WALKER: Well, it's a bit of a problem. Le Figaro, for example, which really has supported the war, was very critical that Bush's speech at the UN "excited a great deal of skepticism among the diplomats who heard him, and equal skepticism among journalists who did not recognize in his vision of an Iraq moving towards democratic elections anything like the reality that they and their colleagues confront every day in the chaos of Iraq."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, speaking about reality, just hours after Bush's speech, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry held a press conference, and essentially he charged the president with being in denial. He said, and I quote, "Iraq is in crisis, and the president needs to live in a world of reality, not in a world of fantasy-spin." Was that a theme?
MARTIN WALKER: It was indeed, and particularly in the Arab press. Jordan's got a new daily newspaper, Al Ghad, which said that Bush's speech about the elections "is a political joke that isn't funny." There was also a similar kind of comment -- this was in the London-based Al Quds Al Arabi commenting on Allawi's interviews and speeches in which the Iraqi prime minister has said that the situation is not as bad as it's painted. Al Quds says "Allawi strolls in the corridors of the United Nations as if he has the legitimacy of representing Iraq in this international lodge, but the reality on the ground of Iraq shows that Allawi represents only a small area in Baghdad called 'the green zone.' Not a day passes without operations against the American forces and the Iraqi police stations." I have to say that my own reporters in Iraq, both Western reporters and Arabic reporters, are reporting, and they are reflecting a very much more contentious and, and divisive and violent reality than the one that Bush and Allawi have been suggesting.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It strikes me that it wouldn't help Kerry much in this country if it were widely known that the Middle Eastern papers stand four square with him.
MARTIN WALKER: Well, that's absolutely right. The Guardian, which is my old newspaper in Britain, cited an opinion poll survey by the pollsters H.I. Europe only this month which found that if Europeans had a vote, they'd back Kerry over Bush by a 6 to 1 margin. Bush would get just 6 percent in Germany, 5 percent in Spain and 4 percent in France. And the Guardian went on, "You would think those numbers might hurt Bush, making clear how unpopular he is in the world, but they don't. If anything, they hurt Kerry, suggesting that he is the candidate of limp-wristed foreigners, and therefore somehow less American. We may find that a sorry state of affairs, but there's little we can do about it. In the democratic contest that matters most to the world, the world is disenfranchised."
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay. Martin, thank you very much.
MARTIN WALKER: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Martin Walker is editor in chief of United Press International. [MUSIC]