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Western Press Review: Asia's Economic Problems Continue; A Dilemma

  • Joel Blocker

Prague, 12 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Today and over the weekend, much Western press comment has centered on Asia's continuing economic crisis. Analysts also are still interested in the possibility of a warming of relations between Washington and Teheran in the wake of last week's warm words about the American people during an international television interview by Iranian President Mohammed Khatami.

NEW YORK TIMES: A default by Indonesia could spread throughout the region

In a series of editorials in the past few days, the New York Times has assessed economic and corruption problems in Indonesia, Vietnam and Pakistan. Yesterday, in an editorial entitled "Indonesia's Downward Spiral", the paper focused on what it called the country's "financial chaos and political paralysis." The New York Times wrote: "This weekend, emissaries from the Clinton Administration and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are traveling to Jakarta for urgent meetings on the crisis. They should insist that Indonesia fulfill its pledges to carry out tough economic reforms. Beyond that, they need to make clear that the markets there collapsed as much from concern over President Suharto's corrupt brand of crony capitalism as from other underlying causes." The paper continued: "The importance of taking vigorous steps to defend Indonesia's currency and to insure the repayment of loans goes far beyond Indonesia itself. A default by Indonesia could spread throughout the region and, from there, jolt the banking systems of Japan, Europe and the United States....Instead of clinging to power in a nation now mired in debt, Suharto may well need to decide that the best thing he can do for his country is to step aside."

WASHINGTON POST: In Indonesia the situation goes from bad to worse

An editorial in The Washington Post yesterday also considered what it called Indonesia's "crisis of dictatorship." The paper said: "The constantly moving epicenter of the seemingly unending Asian financial crisis has now moved back to Indonesia. In South Korea, conditions have stabilized, at least for now. Thailand's government is making an earnest effort at reform. But in Indonesia, the world's fourth most populous nation, the situation goes from bad to worse. This is due partly to the wrong medicine being prescribed from outside, partly to Indonesia's failure to implement necessary reforms and very largely to the same shortcoming that helped bring on the crisis in the first place: an absence of democratic accountability." The paper summed up: "In a nation that has weathered only one change of power since independence --and that one, a bloody episode that claimed as many as 500,000 lives -- this is no small failing. An absence of any checks on presidential power --the absence of a free press, an independent legislature, a true opposition party --allowed crony capitalism to flourish. Now it impedes the political and economic reform Indonesia desperately needs to stem the current panic. The best gift Mr. Suharto could give his nation, and his best chance of salvaging a legacy of economic progress, would be to make way now for a new, more democratic system."

SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG: The President's cronyism and nepotism cannot handle the crisis

In a signed editorial on "the Suharto problem" in Friday's Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Josef Joffe agreed that the Indonesian President's "cronyism and nepotism cannot handle the crisis in his country." Joffe wrote: "Indonesia is an authoritarian state with a quasi-dictator in the form of President Suharto. He is supposed to receive $43 billion from the IMF, yet he is unwilling to take the bull by the horns and clean up a financial system thoroughly corrupted by members of his own clan....The West," Joffe concluded, "should not relax the pressure (on Suharto). Better a bankrupt Indonesia than a blank check that would have to be honored by Western banks."

NEW YORK TIMES: Corruption was made possible by companies that paid bribes

In two other editorials --published, respectively, on Saturday and today-- The New York Times discussed problems in Pakistan and Vietnam. In the wake of its correspondent John Burns' investigations of corruption in Pakistan published the day before, the paper wrote on January 10: "Tens of millions of dollars illicitly obtained by the family of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan could not have been collected without the help of a network of Western international intermediaries and accomplices. The corruption detailed (by Burns) was made possible by companies that paid bribes to do business with Pakistan banks that profited from Bhutto-related accounts, and lenders and political patrons --including Washington-- willing to look the other way. In the last few years, some of these institutions have begun to take step to combat corruption, but the Bhutto case shows how much more needs to be done."

NEW YORK TIMES: Vietnam's reforming impulse has stalled

In its comment today on Vietnam , The New York Times discusses what it calls the Communist-led country's "untimely retreat" from needed economic reforms. It says that, "in recent years, Vietnam's reforming impulse has stalled. (But the reforms) are far from complete," the paper continues, "and have not progresses nearly as far as (Communist) China's. The needed next step is an aggressive sell-off of the nearly 6,0000 remaining state-owned companies, many of which are closely linked to the army." It concludes: "Vietnam's leaders are concerned by recent unrest in rural areas over complaints about low wages and corrupt local (Communist) party leaders. They see neighboring countries like Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia being pressed by global lenders to accept painful economic adjustments. They dream of some middle course...capitalist development without increased foreign influence and a weakening of domestic political control. But such dreams are illusory, as other socialist countries trying to step halfway into the world market have discovered."

FINANCIAL TIMES: Hostility has damaged both sides

Turning to U.S.-Iranian relations, the British daily Financial Times today writes that, after Prime Minister Khatami's televised overtures last week, Washington faces a dilemma like that posed by Mikhail Gorbachev 10 years ago." The paper says: "The geopolitical stakes are smaller, though in regional terms far from insignificant. But the emotional cultural barriers to be overcome are even higher. No country has been so convulsed by anti-Americanism as Iran during its Islamic revolution, and none has so humiliated the U.S. as Iran did during the 1979-81 hostage crisis."

The paper continues: "This hostility has damaged both sides. While obstructing Iran's development, it undermines U.S. efforts to isolate Iraq. It also threatens to embroil the U.S. in a damaging trade dispute with Europe. An Iranian leader who appears determined to improve relations deserves encouragement, even if his words have to be checked against his deeds.." The Financial Times concludes: "U.S.-Iranian understanding will not be easy, but it is an essential ingredient in any long-term recipe for regional stability. The two countries share an interest in containing (Iraq's) Saddam Hussein. He alone has anything to gain from their remaining at odds."

NEW YORK TIMES: U.S. foreign policy toward Iran and Iraq was replaced by the policy of Dual Doormat

In a comment entitled "Dual Doormat Policy," New York Times conservative columnist William Safire yesterday wrote that "a new U.S. foreign policy toward Iran and Iraq, rooted in a showing of fierce acquiescence, has been quietly adopted by the Clinton Administration." Safire said that "because the previous policy of 'Dual Containment' was beginning to demand tough decisions on sanctions and sacrifice, it was replaced by the policy of Dual Doormat We have already seen."

Safire continued, "fierce acquiescence on display toward Saddam (Hussein's) refusal to permit United Nations inspections of his bio-war palaces....Clinton' loosening of sanctions (against Iraq) only encourages Saddam." Safire then wrote: "Next comes the second doormat: the erosion of our attempt to stop the ayatollahs of Iran from buying and building a nuclear missile threat. As soon as Iran's new President, Mohammed Khatami, cut the great-Satan rhetoric and spoke kindly of Abraham Lincoln, the Clinton dovecote began undermining our law putting economic pressure on nations like Russian and France eager to sell Teheran nuclear-weapons know-how."

NEW YORK TIMES: Khatami ruled out any official dialogue with the U.S. government, but ...

In a news analysis in the same paper today, correspondent Elaine Sciolino asks: "Will Iran now let a U.S. congressman visit?" Writing from Teheran, she notes that the day after Khatami's televised interview, Representative Tom Lantos (Dem.-Calif.) sent him a personal letters asking to visit Iran. But she says no-one in the Iranian government is able to say whether Santos will be allowed to come to Iran or not.

Sciolino writes: "Lantos' effort to test Khatami's offer may be the first sign of just how complicated carrying out his very modest proposal may turn out to be. In his interview with CNN last week, Khatami ruled out any official dialogue with the U.S. government, but he said nothing about the legislative branch. So, she asks, "is a visit by a congressman --whose salary is paid by the U.S. government-- cultural or political?" Sciolino says she has received differing responses the question from officials in the Teheran government --an indication that no final decision has yet been made, she suggests.