UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush and other world leaders scrambled on Tuesday to contain the fallout from a financial crisis engulfing Wall Street and sending shock waves across the globe.
In his farewell speech to the United Nations, Bush offered assurances of his commitment to stabilizing world markets, which are overshadowing international concerns about tense standoffs with Russia, Iran and North Korea.
But he also faced criticism at the annual General Assembly gathering of world leaders over the excesses of global capitalism that Washington has long pushed as the path to economic prosperity.
“Who is responsible for this disaster? May those who are responsible be punished and held accountable,” said French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Sarkozy called for a summit of world leaders in November to examine ways to overhaul what he said was a “crazy” financial setup at the root of the problem.
Even Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — whose country faced condemnation from Bush over its nuclear ambitions — joined the fray, saying in a newspaper interview the Wall Street crisis stemmed in part from U.S. military interventions in places like Iraq.
“American empire in the world is reaching the end of its road, and its next rulers must limit their interference to their own borders,” Ahmadinejad said as he railed against Iran’s foes, the United States and its ally Israel, in his U.N. address.
With Bush leaving office in four months, many world leaders are looking to the November 4 U.S. election and the next president — Republican John McCain or Democrat Barack Obama.
As the speechifying continued just miles (km) from Wall Street, intensive efforts were under way in Washington to craft a $700 billion bailout spurred by the worst upheaval in the U.S. financial system since the Great Depression.
“I can assure you that my administration and our Congress are working together to quickly pass legislation approving this strategy, and I’m confident we will act in the urgent time frame required,” Bush said.
In his speech, Sarkozy urged the creation of “a regulated capitalism in which whole swathes of financial activity are not left to the sole judgment of market operators.”
With investors worried and the meltdown spreading, other economic powers are feeling the pinch. Poor countries fear cuts in the aid budgets of their biggest donors.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said financial turmoil demands a new approach with less “uncritical faith in the ‘magic’ of markets.”
His words resonated with delegates of leftist governments that have long opposed the free market orthodoxy the Bush administration has advocated.
The main thrust of Bush’s eighth and final U.N. address was a call to redouble the fight against terrorism — a choice criticized by Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a former labor leader with close ties to Washington.
“He opted to talk again about terrorism,” said Lula. “I was expecting he was going to talk about the economic crisis because I think this is the most important thing at this moment.”
Invoking the pain felt in the developing world, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said, “Economic uncertainty has moved like a tsunami around the globe, wiping away gains.”
Bush reasserted accusations that Iran and Syria sponsor terrorism — charges they deny — and urged U.N. member states to enforce sanctions against Iran and North Korea over their nuclear programs.
Sarkozy backed a U.S.-led bid for further U.N. sanctions on Tehran, even though three previous packages have failed to convince it to halt uranium enrichment. Iran denies it seeks nuclear weapons and insists it only wants nuclear energy.
Ahmadinejad, who was present for Bush’s speech, addressed the assembly in the afternoon.
He insisted that Iran was in favor of dialogue but vowed it would resist “bullying” powers trying to thwart its efforts to acquire what he what he said was peaceful nuclear technology.
Bush renewed U.S. support for Georgia, which Russia invaded in August after the former Soviet republic tried to retake control of its pro-Moscow breakaway region of South Ossetia.
He criticized Russia less stridently than previously. “The United Nations Charter sets forth the ‘equal rights of nations large and small,’” he said. “Russia’s invasion of Georgia was a violation of those words.”
Russia’s military resurgence has added to an East-West chill not seen since the Cold War. But Western powers must walk a cautious line as they need Moscow’s diplomatic cooperation on issues such as reining in Iran’s nuclear program.
Additional reporting by Jeremy Pelofsky, Sue Pleming, Louis Charbonneau, Isabel Versiani, Walter Brandimarte and Claudia Parsons in New York and Tabassum Zakaria in Washington; Editing by Doina Chiacu