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Western Press Review: The West's Neo-Imperialism, U.S. Adventures In Optimism, And Pankisi's Chechens

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 19 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The media today looks at the limitations of Western neo-imperialism, revolution and social change in Iran, and how American optimism often spawns unexpected outcomes. Discussion in the press also focuses on devolving more power to Iraqi governing bodies, the effects of Georgian-Russian rapprochement on Chechen refugees in the Pankisi Gorge, and U.S.-EU relations in a rapidly changing world.


"There's something about the U.S. venture into Iraq that is inspiringly, painfully, embarrassingly and quintessentially American," columnist David Brooks writes. "No other nation would have been hopeful enough to try to evangelize for democracy across the Middle East. No other nation would have been naive enough to do it this badly. No other nation would be adaptable enough to recover from its own innocence and muddle its way to success, as I suspect we Americans are about to do."

American history seems to play out the same story over and over again, Brooks says. Periodically, "big-dreaming but foolhardy adventurers head out to eradicate some evil and to realize some golden future.
"The greatest safeguard against American imperialism is American democracy."

"They get halfway along their journey and find they are unprepared for the harsh reality they suddenly face. It's too late to turn back, so they [toss] out illusions and adopt an almost desperate pragmatism." Brooks says these adventurers "[never] realize the utopia they initially dreamed about, but they do build something better than what came before."

After having jumped into the fray without a clear plan, they "faced the shock of reality, adapted and cobbled together something unexpected."

Despite the impetuousness of such projects, Brooks says they serve a purpose: "[Nothing] important was ever begun in a prudential frame of mind," he writes.

In Iraq today, the erstwhile irrepressible American hopes are being replaced by a rising sense of despair. Growing doubts about the rationale and conduct of the war have led many to question the U.S. leadership and reassess the deteriorating situation in the Persian Gulf.

But Brooks says, "this very process of self-criticism is the precondition" for the second phase -- "the grubbier, less illusioned effort that often enough leads to some acceptable outcome."


Columnist Simon Jenkins of the London-based "Times" discusses the Anglo-American occupation of Iraq and the difficulties the modern world presents for such neo-imperialist tendencies. He says today, "just as globalization has made possible the revival of empire, so it has made it unsustainable.

"The greatest safeguard against American imperialism is American democracy," Jenkins says, for voters "will not tolerate the expense. They may fight a quick, just war and return home. If tricked into a quick, unjust war, they return home faster."

Democracies as a whole "have short attention spans," he says. U.S. President George W. Bush "is right in saying that America does not want empire. The trouble is that it keeps trying to do half empire. It may stay a while where it is welcome, in Germany or Bosnia, but not where it is merely needed. Its treatment of Afghanistan, where almost no reconstruction has been undertaken, is a disgrace."

The "guts and grit [and] staying power" that often defines a successful empire "may be fine in theory, but in the hands of a democratic superpower it is unrealistic. Imperialism and democracy are contradictory."

If Western politicians such as British Prime Minister Tony Blair mean a word of what they say "about confronting global evil and rescuing victims of tyranny," what is being done about Sudan? Jenkins asks. "Its million refugees today are 10 times more afflicted than were Iraq's in 2003." Where are the "fine words" from politicians and the "jet-set diplomacy" for those fleeing attacks and starvation in Darfur?

"That is the trouble with neocon imperialism," says Jenkins. "[Its] morality seems partial and spasmodic."


International editor of United Press International Claude Salhani says that, "at a time when Muslim fundamentalists are busily trying to export Islamic revolutions around the globe, they might want to take a good close look at Iran."

The 1979 popular uprising that overthrew the U.S.-backed shah of Iran was instigated largely at the behest of "students and Tehran bazaar shop owners," in the grip of "Islamic fervor," Salhani says. Following the success of this effort the new reigning mullahs and ayatollahs, and their revolutionary guards, "believed Iran would rapidly export its Islamic revolution. The expectation was that Iran would spread fundamentalism, much the same way the Soviet Union exported socialism to dozens of countries around the world, uniting them into a pact against the West."

But while Iran's new clerical leadership tried "to interest a number of countries to follow in their footsteps, [they] ultimately failed. There is not one country that has adopted the Iranian system," Salhani observes. Iran's revolution "was 'unsellable' outside its borders. Now, some 25 years later, Iran is beginning to change once more, slowly swinging back towards a more moderate center."

He writes: "With elections still rigged, the country has a long way to go before it can be confused with anything resembling a democracy. Nevertheless, it is a very different Iran from the one that ousted the shah," and which formerly "hanged from construction cranes anyone who dared oppose the Islamic Revolution. And with a large young population born after the revolution, the change will continue apace."


An editorial in the Brussels-based edition says most Iraqis "remain grateful" to the United States and its allies for overthrowing Saddam Hussein and putting an end to his repressive reign. But the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) has failed to grant Iraqi governing bodies sufficient authority to conduct their own investigations and manage their own affairs.

An inquiry launched several months ago by the Iraqi Governing Council into possible fraud in connection with the UN oil-for-food program has been stalled by coalition head L. Paul Bremer, who "muscled in to wrest control of it from Iraqis." Bremer hired a second firm to redo the audit tender commissioned by the council. The paper says, "Alas, this has been all too typical of Mr. Bremer's reluctance to let Iraqis take more responsibility for their own governance."

Bremer appointed the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) "but then gave it far too little tangible or even symbolic power. Had its members been given more de facto control over day-to-day affairs for the past year," the "Journal" suggests "there would have been less pressure for the de jure sovereignty handover that will now have to precede any legitimizing Iraqi elections."

Following the assassination this week (17 May) of rotating IGC President Abd al-Zahra Uthman Muhammad (a.k.a. Izz al-Din Salim), the paper says the Iraqi leaders who have been "working with the U.S. to build a new Iraq have taken real risks, and they have shown wisdom and competence in drafting the Middle East's most liberal constitution and economic laws." As a result, they "deserve more respect than both Mr. Bremer and the antiwar press have so far accorded them."


An editorial today says the U.S. administration's neoconservatives, "who believed they could revise the rules of statecraft," would do well to take another look at history and at the importance of having allies on board before undertaking major international projects. The paper says this "would mean turning back toward Europe, both old and new, and mustering a little of the humility President George W. Bush once promised to bring to the conduct of U.S. foreign policy."

No matter who wins the 2 November presidential election in the United States, the "Globe" says "Washington's damaged relations with historic allies will have to be repaired." And this project should begin with inspiring Americans with a greater appreciation of the European Union, "despite its flaws and idiosyncrasies."

The paper writes: "For anyone conscious of the long kidnapping of Central Europe that defined the Cold War, the EU's formal acceptance of the three Baltic states, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Slovenia as well as Malta and the Greek sector of Cyprus symbolizes one of those rare moments in history when reason prevails over unreason."

Americans "ought to regard this peaceful Europe of human rights and the rule of law [as] a paradigm for the political and economic arrangements best suited to create true security."

In the future, the European Union and the United States "must confront transnational challenges cooperatively, whether from terrorism, organized crime, narcotics trafficking, or diseases that are spread swiftly and globally."

And the "Globe" says, "no American president should act as though he could do without allied Europe."


Freelance journalist Elizabeth Owen, a specialist in political affairs in the Caucasus, says as Georgia and Russia pursue rapprochement, Chechen refugees in Pankisi Gorge "are reporting increased police harassment and a growing sense of insecurity." The Chechens have asked to be re-settled in the West.

The Kremlin has recently renewed its demands that Georgia take action against suspected Chechen militants in Pankisi. Owen says many Chechens believe Georgia will accede to the request "as part of a quid pro quo for Russia's cooperation with [Georgian] President Mikheil Saakashvili's administration on Ajara." Moscow refrained from intervening as the standoff between Tbilisi and Adjara's erstwhile leader, Aslan Abashidze, a Kremlin ally, played out in recent weeks.

Owen says, following the 9 May assassination of Chechnya's Russian-backed President Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov, "Moscow is unlikely to ease its pressure on the Georgian government to contain the perceived Chechen threat."

Tbilisi has reestablished its authority in the gorge in the past two years, but the area "is still burdened with a reputation as a haven for terrorists and Islamic militants." Georgian officials "insist that their Pankisi crackdown aims solely to root out militants and Islamic radicals." But Owen remarks that Chechen rebels often live among, or have connections to, ordinary civilians. This makes it hard for security forces to identify the separatists and complicates efforts to root out militants while leaving refugees undisturbed.