UNITED NATIONS -- Despite an appearance at the United Nations that was friendlier and more optimistic than any of his previous speeches to the world body, President Bush still faces a skeptical crowd at the UN.
There was no burst of applause during Bush's speech to the General Assembly yesterday, even when he talked about the world's common struggles against poverty and disease. And the applause at the end was subdued.
Before Bush spoke, Secretary General Kofi Annan gave a stern address warning that even the world's most powerful countries must follow the rule of law, which many interpreted to be a rebuke of Bush's actions in Iraq.
And just after Bush's motorcade sped away from UN headquarters, Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero of Spain said at a press conference that he withdrew troops from Iraq because peace demands ''more heroism than war."
President Joseph Deiss of Switzerland took the podium at the General Assembly to declare that the US-led project in Iraq is ''doomed to failure."
These critical sentiments reflect the obstacles that Bush faces now in persuading UN member states to join him in rebuilding Iraq, 18 months after he ordered the invasion of Iraq without explicit UN backing. The United States is now struggling to persuade other countries to take part in a military force that will protect UN workers, a crucial first step to ensuring a large-scale return of the world body to assist with elections that are slated for January.
''It has not been an easy process," said a New York-based UN official involved with the efforts to put together a smaller force of about 150 soldiers to guard the UN compound in Iraq.
''The ones that are already there are already stretched and for the ones who aren't there, it's a political decision."
US officials spearheading the effort to put together a brigade-sized force of soldiers to protect UN workers outside of Baghdad have met with similar reluctance, despite the unanimous passage of a UN resolution this summer that urged countries to contribute troops to such a force. US officials have approached at least 22 countries to send troops to the special force, which would operate under the command of the US-led multinational force, but so far have received no positive responses.
In his address, Annan asked countries to contribute troops to the force ''to improve the security of United Nations staff."
Before their speeches to the General Assembly, Bush and Annan met behind closed doors for about 20 minutes and spoke about Iraq and the troubled Sudanese region of Darfur.
At that meeting, Bush thanked Annan for the UN's efforts to get countries to contribute troops. Bush encouraged the secretary general ''not to be deterred by the violence in Iraq because we must stay the course."
He also told Annan, ''We have the collective power to spread liberty" in Iraq, but warned that the UN should ''expect more violence because the terrorists are smart; they are sophisticated in their assessments," the official said.
Moments later, Annan took the podium and gave a somber, stirring address that said international laws -- not violence -- protect the world from terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.
''It is by strengthening and implementing disarmament treaties, including their verification provisions, that we can best defend ourselves against the proliferation -- and potential use -- of weapons of mass destruction," said Annan.
Last week, Annan told a BBC interviewer that he considers the US-led invasion of Iraq illegal under international law. ''Too often [international law] is applied selectively, and enforced arbitrarily," Annan said yesterday.
At times during his speech, the graying diplomat seemed like a cross patriarch taking wayward children by the scruffs of their necks. He pointed out the wrongdoings of both Palestinian suicide bombers and Israeli officials who bulldoze Palestinian homes, and condemned murder and hostage-taking by the insurgents in Iraq, as well as the treatment of Iraqi prisoners who were ''disgracefully abused" by US soldiers.
''Excellencies, no cause, no grievance, however legitimate in itself, can begin to justify such acts," Annan told the assembly.
Annan also urged the international community to give material support to the African Union force that is trying to ease the humanitarian crisis in Darfur.
Bush found some positive signs. President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan, dressed in his signature, traditional green robe and gray hat, lauded Bush's address, which addressed freedom and progress in Afghanistan. ''It was a very good speech. It was all true," he said, hours before he delivered a speech thanking the United States, among a host of countries, for helping to rebuild Afghanistan after two decades of war.
Another sign of goodwill came when Bush returned to UN headquarters to have lunch with Annan. The secretary general made a toast ''to peace, to progress, and to making our organization an effective instrument for all."
Two years ago, Bush said in his speech to the opening session that the UN was in danger of ''fading into history as an ineffective, irrelevant debating society."
This time Bush responded with his own toast to Annan and the UN.
Farah Stockman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Globe correspondent Joe Lauria contributed to this report.