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Western Press Review: U.S. Elections; Kursk's Implications

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Prague, 22 August 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentary today is varied, with writers showing interest -- among other things -- in the continuing campaign for the November U.S. presidential election and in the implications of Russia's submarine disaster.


On the U.S. election, the Chicago Tribune says in an editorial that a "refreshing competition" has emerged in the presidential race between Al Gore and George Bush, with both the Democratic and the Republican parties vying to see who can be the more inclusive organization, ethnically and otherwise.

The editorial, entitled "shopping for the black vote," says: "Even before Democratic candidate Al Gore announced that he had chosen the first Jewish vice presidential candidate of any major American political party's ticket, George W. Bush had made an appeal to blacks and Hispanics a defining goal of his campaign."

The editorial finds the outreach to African-Americans is particularly significant: "Black leaders have complained for years of being ignored by one party and taken for granted by the other. This year's Republican National Convention tried vigorously to end that."

Moreover, the editorial continues: "larger percentages of young African-Americans, age 19 to 25, are identifying with the Republican Party, compared with their elders,[although] in past years the party has not held onto young blacks as they have grown older. This year Republicans have a particularly strong strategic incentive to change that.." the paper says. "If Republicans, who usually attract about 10 percent of the black vote in presidential elections, can raise that to more than 15 percent this time, they would seriously damage Gore's chances".

The editorial adds that Bush's promise to play the politics of inclusion must not be limited to his stage appearances, but that he should compete for the votes of minorities by presenting a thoughtful agenda of remedies to problems that concern them: "Low job skills, failing schools, welfare dependency and workplace discrimination, to name a few, are not the problems of minorities alone. They are the concerns of all Americans. They should be the concerns of all political parties."


In a commentary for a provincial U.S. daily, the Arizona Republic, Kelly Ettenborough looks at another important aspect of the U.S. presidential campaign -- namely, the frequent invocation of religious beliefs.

She writes: "George W. Bush speaks of a Jesus who changed his heart. He calls Jesus his favorite political philosopher. Al Gore makes decisions by asking 'What would Jesus do?' " -- a phrase from bracelets made popular by Christian teens.

Ettenborough says: "The two major presidential candidates are campaigning with Jesus on their lips more often and more publicly than candidates in previous elections. Even though America is more religiously diverse, Christian overtones are more pervasive and more sustained among the candidates".

The commentary -- based on conversations with religious analysts and theologians -- goes on to say: "This shift is driven by polls that show a more public faith plays well with voters who believe in God themselves and who are concerned with the morality and personal life of the next president."


The New York Times, in an editorial, looks forward to the coming televised debates between the two leading candidates. It says: "With the Republican and Democratic conventions completed, the next potentially decisive event in the presidential campaign will be the debates between Vice President Al Gore and Governor George W. Bush".

The editorial, entitled "stop arguing and start debating," notes that both camps have begun arguing over the format and number of debates. It says: "Since the Democrats met in Los Angeles last week, the political news for Mr. Gore has looked more favorable, and it is understandable that he would want more debates rather than fewer. Not only have the polls improved for the vice president, but they also show that the public is more inclined to favor him on the economy, social security, education and health. It stands to reason in Mr. Gore's camp that a debate might underscore these and other issues."

The editorial also looks at the rival candidate: "Mr. Bush, on the other hand, has developed into a forceful and articulate candidate with what many voters believe are appealing leadership qualities. His confident manner could easily make up for any inability to recite facts and legislation as Mr. Gore has shown he can do."

The paper calls for a quick start to the TV debates, saying: "Since the differences between the Republican and Democratic nominees are becoming clearer by the day, a series of universally televised debates in prime time would best educate voters, spur public interest and force the candidates to articulate why they should be elected".


Another subject of continuing comment in the Western press is the tragic failure of the mission to rescue the crew of the sunken Russian nuclear submarine Kursk.

In an analysis in the Washington Post entitled "Russia's Insecurity Complex," writer Andrew Kuchins looks at the implications for defense policy. He writes: "The fate of the Russian nuclear submarine Kursk is a tragic metaphor for Russia's rapid descent in the past decade from global superpower status."

He notes that the Kursk was engaged in exercises simulating conflict with NATO forces a decade after the peaceful conclusion of the Cold War: "The Soviet Union's development of an ocean-going nuclear submarine force was an important part of the mammoth efforts of the Kremlin to achieve military parity with the United States," he says. "Today these forces, along with the rest of the Russian nuclear weapons complex, no longer present the threat of Armageddon that was feared for decades. Rather, they are feared because of questions about Russia's ability to safely and reliably control the weapons and materials."

Kuchins, a senior analyst at the U.S.-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writes further: "The choices Russia makes in the next few years about its military forces will have a large impact on international security. With a gross national product about the size of Switzerland's and an annual military budget of some $5 billion, Russia faces hard decisions about allocating resources in the most effective manner to improve national security".

He alludes, too, to a Russian National Security Council meeting on August 11 that sought to address major differences on defense policy among the top brass in Moscow: "The minister of defense, Igor Sergeyev, supports funding for Russian nuclear forces as the top priority, while the chief of the Russian general staff, Anatoly Kvashnin, wants to see more support devoted to Russian conventional forces." Kuchins argues that both sides can bring compelling arguments to bear: "Given the dramatic deterioration of Russia's conventional capabilities, its nuclear forces remain the primary currency to support Moscow's status as an international great power. But nuclear weapons hardly are effective or even usable weapons in the kinds of conflicts Russia is mostly likely to find itself in for the next decade or two. They didn't help in Afghanistan, and they aren't helping in Chechnya".

He continues: "Even in the best-case scenario of prolonged Russian economic growth, Russia will be forced to make major changes in its force structure because of severe financial constraints.

He concludes: "Making these hard choices could be the logical conclusion of the demilitarization initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s, and they also can have a revolutionary impact on international security, as did his 'new political thinking,' which led to the end of the Cold War." POLITIKEN:

In Denmark, the daily Politiken writes in an editorial that the Kursk disaster has shaken both Russia and the international community. "But," it says, "the [tragedy] in the Barents Sea has done much more [than that]. It has undermined the foundations of [President] Vladimir Putin's legitimacy as a leader who has so far received unconditional support by the population".

Politiken continues: "The ordinary Russians put the value of human lives over national pride and military secrets. They felt, however, that in the course of a week Putin did the opposite. Even the media most loyal to the Kremlin told them that. The same media had extolled the Russian leadership for its behavior in Chechnya".

At least, says the editorial, "in the case of the criminal incompetence and irresolution of the Russian navy leadership in the Far North, the press showed it had a different face." It continues: "The Kursk has done to Putin's Russia what Chernobyl did to Gorbachev's Soviet Union in 1986. It has revealed the discrepancy between the political, economic and military ambitions of a great power and the inability to handle a crisis in an efficient, flexible and open manner."


Germanys' Sueddeutsche Zeitung, carries a news analysis by Daniel Bruessler which worries about the environmental implications of the disaster. He writes " Sooner or later, the Russians will have to choose between three variants for dealing with the unfortunate submarine: raising it and bringing it to land; re-sinking it in a deeper water; or leaving it where it is."

Bruessler also says that although the vessel is not now leaking radiation, experts are united in naming as the best scenario what he describes as "the raising of the Kursk and the correct treatment on land to render it harmless. But that," he notes, "will be expensive. Without help from the West, it probably won't happen." A decisive factor in that scenario, the analysis adds, is whether the Kursk's hull is in good enough condition to stand being raised without breaking apart.


Another news event drawing comment today is that of the voluntary return to Britain of former security agent David Shayler to face charges of breaching Britain's Official Secrets Act. Shayler had been living in exile in France for several years, after making public allegations about incompetence in the British intelligence services. He also alleged there had been a failed British plot to assassinate Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.

In a news analysis in the New York Times, Sarah Lyell notes that, as he stepped off a ferry from Calais, "Mr. Shayler was charged with two violations of Britain's Official Secrets Act, a sweeping law that outlaws unauthorized disclosures of any kind about the internal workings of the government. He faces a trial and, if found guilty, could be sentenced to up to four years in prison."

Lyell writes that Shayler had always said he eventually wanted to come home: "And, now that Britain is poised to incorporate into its domestic law the European Convention on Human Rights -- a set of principles that includes the right to freedom of expression -- he said he feels he stands a better chance of being acquitted when his case comes to trial." She writes that it is uncertain whether the government will actually prosecute him.


In an editorial, the Financial Times notes the paradox of the situation. The British government has denied the existence of a plot against Gaddafi. But, the editorial says: "Shayler would only be guilty in the Gaddafi affair under the Official Secrets Act if what he said about his employment was fact, not fiction."


Another British paper, the Guardian, refers in an editorial to the exploits of the fictional spy hero James Bond, saying: "In returning to Britain yesterday, David Shayler may have inadvertently struck the greatest blow for openness by a member of the secret services since James Bond drove [a] jet-boat through the windows of [the intelligence agency] MI6's Thames-side headquarters."

The Guardian continues: "In the first place, he does not deny breaking the law; he merely claims that a bad law forced him into illegality in the public interest. If this is true, it may be best to demonstrate that fact in court, against the test of the Human Rights Act and its right to freedom of expression" At stake also is the fate of the Official Secrets Act itself, says the editorial: "Some campaigners believe that a do-nothing approach by the authorities would confirm that the act is effectively a dead letter. But what better way to drive a stake through its heart than to crush it in a courtroom, where its archaic and absurd nature might be exposed for all to see."