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Western Press Review: Russia's Submarine; Clinton's Valedictory

  • Joel Blocker

Prague, 15 August 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentary today centers on two subjects almost a world apart. The first is a crippled Russian submarine that has lain on the bottom of the Barents Sea in the Arctic Circle since Sunday with 116 sailors trapped inside. The second is U.S. President Bill Clinton's speech last night to the opening session of his Democratic Party's convention in the west coast city of Los Angeles.

Analysts see the submarine disaster as a blow to Russia's prestige and say it could have an effect on the country's future military policy. They call Clinton's speech -- made five months before the actual end of his presidency -- a "valedictory" address to his fellow Democrats.


In a new analysis for the U.S. daily Christian Science Monitor, Fred Weir says that "the stricken nuclear submarine, [the Kursk], trapped on the sea bed above the Arctic Circle was the pride of Russia's nuclear forces and a symbol of its hope to maintain nuclear parity with the United States." Writing from Moscow, he adds: "No matter how the accident plays out, it is seen [here] as a major blow to Russia's prestige and may force the country to scale back its ambitions as a global military power."

"In April," the analyst recalls, "[Russian] President Vladimir Putin spent a night on the Karelia, a ballistic-missile sub from the same naval base [as the Kursk], Severodvinsk on the White Sea, and praised the submarine fleet as the mainstay of Russia's nuclear deterrent. 'Russia needs armed forces, and the Northern Fleet is one of their main elements,' Mr. Putin said [then]."

"On Friday (Aug 11)," he adds, "the Kremlin Security Council decided to make deep cuts in Russia's strategic nuclear arsenal in order to fund other branches of the fraying and cash-strapped military forces. But experts say the accident with the Kursk -- however it plays out -- will stand as a stark warning to Russian military planners to scale down their ambitions in the future."

Weir quotes Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent Russian military analyst, as saying: "This is the biggest attack submarine ever built, and it was the great hope for the Russian Navy to maintain its superpower image. The Kursk is so large it has a sauna, a swimming pool, and quarters for pets. You cannot blame this accident on the usual causes of Russian naval disasters -- age and technological backwardness." Felgenhauer then added: "We may claim to be a great power, but the truth is we can barely afford to change the light bulbs in these ships, much less keep them running properly."


The Washington Times David Sands says in a similar news analysis that "Russia's latest nuclear submarine disaster provides ammunition to both factions in a raging debate in Moscow over the future of the country's once-proud military machine." Sands, like Weir, cites last Friday's "four-hour Security Council meeting [that heard arguments, he says] from Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev -- the leading supporter of a strong and independent nuclear force -- and Chief of Staff Anatoly Kvashnin, who wants to boost conventional defense spending and fold the nuclear forces into a single military command structure."

David Johnson, a Russian military expert at the Washington-based Center for Defense Intelligence, is quoted as saying: "My suspicion is that the submarine disaster feeds into Kvashnin's arguments. This would be a very expensive loss if the submarine cannot be salvaged. It certainly complicates the argument that the nuclear force is such a wonderful centerpiece of Russian security."

But another expert with whom Sands spoke -- Bill Hoehn of the Russian-American Advisory Council -- said: "the incident actually could strengthen the nuclear faction, as more details of the sub's plight emerge. If it comes to light that the sub had trouble because of poor maintenance or a lack of resources," Hoehn told Sands, "you can make the argument that the nuclear forces need more budget support, not less."


Half-way around the globe, in Los Angeles, the U.S. Democratic Party opened its presidential nominating convention yesterday with a speech from outgoing President Bill Clinton, who has held office since early 1993. The New York Times calls the address "Clinton's Valedictory" in an editorial, saying that Clinton "offered a passionate defense of his record and a dutiful argument that Vice President [and soon-to-be official party candidate for president] Al Gore is ready to take over.

For fans of presidential oratory," the paper goes on, "the speech was a reminder of Clinton's skills as an advocate who can both speak from the heart and argue a case through a series of logical points."

The paper notes, however, that "Clinton dealt with his personal scandals by not mentioning them. He apparently decided that this was not going to be a moment of contrition. [Instead] he dwelt on his gratitude to the party and to the voters for letting him serve in the White House."

The editorial finds that "one of the strongest flashes of irritation from Clinton came when he defended his administration's record on military and preparedness issues." At their Philadelphia convention two weeks ago, it says, "the Republicans charged relentlessly that American defenses had declined in the last eight years, ignoring the fact, [the paper says,] that military budgets had started to go down under [Clinton's predecessor George] Bush and have gone back up in the last several years. Clinton," the editorial adds, "even suggested that the Republicans were inviting trouble from overseas with their accusations. Any foreign country inspired by Republican assertions to think that the United States is not ready to defend itself, he said, would be making a grave mistake."


Clay Harris in Britain's Financial Times begins a news analysis by saying: "Valedictory convention appearances by two-term presidents are rare enough that there are few benchmarks by which to judge them. The peculiar circumstances of the last two years of Bill Clinton's presidency made the atmosphere for his address [last night even] more difficult to anticipate. But," Harris adds, "delegates left no doubt about their genuine affection for Mr. Clinton, and their enthusiasm for Hillary, the first lady and U.S. Senate candidate for New York, who also spoke to the convention in its first session. Al Gore will have their votes, but Democrats' hearts still belong to the Clintons."

Harris also finds that, in his words, "Mr. Clinton made his farewell on a heartfelt personal note that veered toward the mawkish." He quotes the end of Clinton's speech: "Remember, whenever you think about me, keep putting people first. Keep building those bridges. And don't stop thinking about tomorrow." Then says, Harris, the convention heard -- on cue -- the [U.S. rock-music group] Fleetwood Mac song that was the theme for the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign, which returned Democrats to the White House for the first time in 12 years."

He concludes: "After the Clintons' bravura performances, Mr. Gore will be looking this week for a new tune to make his own."


"Who will miss Clinton?" asks Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne in a commentary today. Dionne clearly will. He writes: "Clinton's achievement can be measured not only by the [the country's] exhilarating economic numbers but also by the opportunities his presidency has made possible for his successor. Think," he adds, "of how his actions have changed political fashions. Where, [for example,] once it was popular to bash 'welfare cheats,' it is now required of leaders in both parties to be 'compassionate' and talk about lifting up the poor."

The commentary goes on: "Almost everybody will miss Bill Clinton except Al Gore. Democrats will miss his political instincts and his powers of persuasion. Republicans will lose their only topic of conversation other than tax cuts. And at the first sign of recession, everybody else will wonder whether the country is missing Clinton's greatest gift, which is good luck."

"The shame of it," Dionne concludes, "[is that] a Clinton without the scandals might have cemented a new majority. He could have inspired a generation of service-minded young people to see politics with excitement rather than disdain. He would be going out on all those cheers, with no undercurrent of impatience and frustration. He would not have to apologize or explain himself incessantly. He really could have been the Man from Hope [Arkansas, Clinton's hometown]."


The Wall Street Journal Europe is of another mind entirely about the reasons for the current record-breaking U.S. economic prosperity. Its editorial says: "Everyone says the great mystery of this election is why Al Gore isn't getting more credit for the nation's economic boom. Allow us to break the code. Maybe voters aren't buying Mr. Gore's Book of Genesis theory of prosperity."

"That theory," the paper goes on, "on display all this week in Los Angeles, is that the good times began on the day Congress passed the Clinton-Gore tax increase of 1993. Before that there was only the barren Reagan economic void. Out of this dark chaos came the miracle of 'Clintonomics', which lowered interest rates, balanced the budget and created the Internet."

The paper then argues: "So preposterous is this on its face, it's no wonder voters are skeptical. Americans are, of course, inclined to give an incumbent party credit for good times, and without prosperity Mr. Gore would surely be destined for [electoral disaster.] But," it continues, "the Vice President and his boss are so eager to vindicate their policies that they have created an economic fairy tale. 'We have gone from the largest deficits in history to the largest surpluses in history,' President Clinton boasted in his valedictory last night. According to the paper, "a fairer view of the recent economic past gives the Clinton-Gore team credit as much for what it didn't or couldn't do as for what it did. Their accomplishments include, [notably,] re-appointing [Republican Alan Greenspan as head of the Federal Reserve, the U.S. central bank] and resisting their party's trade protectionists."

The paper also refers to what it calls "another Genesis fable -- that the Clinton-Gore team created today's budget surpluses. But," it says, "the contraction in federal spending during the 1990s has almost entirely come out of defense. [This, it says,] is what happens when you win the Cold War, a historic victory made possible by the Reagan defense buildup that contributed to deficits in the 1980s. Bill Clinton," concludes the paper -- agreeing with Dionne, Clinton's defender -- "is nothing if not lucky."