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Western Press Review: U.S. Missile Defense; Russia; UN Summit

  • Charles Recknagel

Prague, 4 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentary today focuses on outgoing U.S. President Bill Clinton's decision to leave to his successor the touchy issue of whether to build an American missile defense system. The papers also look at Russian domestic affairs and the UN summit of world leaders that begins this week in New York.


Britain's daily Financial Times writes that Clinton's move to postpone a U.S. decision on missile defense was motivated by doubts about the current technology for such a system and by implacable Russian opposition. Commentator Stephen Fidler says that the decisive factor in Clinton's announcing the postponement this month may have been the failure of two out of three intercept tests. He continues: "At the same time, Moscow had indicated it would view the system's construction as marking the end of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, regarded by many as central to arms control." The writer concludes that "Mr. Clinton did not want to be responsible for scrapping that treaty without stronger proof that the system would work."


Britain's Times pursues much the same line of thought. In an editorial entitled "Tomorrow's Threat," the paper says that Mr. Clinton's case for delaying a decision is that "on three of the four criteria he had said must be taken into account [too] little is known about the missile defense system to make a decision." The Times lists these three variables as the system's cost, its technical feasibility, and its impact on strategic arms control agreements.

The paper continues: "It is easy in this context to see why Mr. Clinton has decide to pass the parcel [to his successor]." But it warns that Clinton also runs dangers in making no decision now. It says: "The reality is that, whoever wins the presidential election, missile defense is in some form going to be developed and with the Republicans committed to a much more ambitious program [than the Democrats] it is not necessarily helpful [that] missile defense will now become a partisan campaign issue."


France's Le Monde writes today that Mr. Clinton invoked two motives -- realism and prudence -- in explaining to the U.S. public his decision to put off deciding about the $60 billion defense system. But the paper says that he also hopes that the additional time he won by saying the system will be put off -- but not abandoned -- can be put to use. Le Monde says Washington's task is to win the confidence of Moscow and of U.S. allies that the system will not start a new arms race The paper notes the confidence of America's allies is needed because, as Clinton himself said, certain elements of any system to protect North America would have to be installed on their territories, notably in the Britain, Greenland and South Korea.


An editorial in Denmark's Berlingske Tidende congratulates Clinton on his decision not to decide the issue now. The paper writes: "Clinton's decision to set the plans aside means there will be more time to consider the overall military, political and diplomatic consequences of the protection system. Regarding Russia, Clinton's decision will provide new opportunities to reach an agreement about the revision of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty requested by the United States." The editorial concludes: "Even though the treaty, which dates back to 1972 when it was designed to limit the missile strength of the superpowers, may now seem antiquated, it would be sensible to amend it so that Moscow feels secure once the U.S. defense system is in place."


The Washington Post also welcomes Clinton's decision, saying in an editorial that it makes sense to leave the ultimate choice to the next administration. The paper calls the issue of the defense system "a fateful determination that should be made by a president operating under a fresh mandate with more information, after a [presidential] campaign in which all the pros and cons of the various missile defense options have been full aired." The Washington Post concludes: "Now let that debate begin."


Recent tragedies in Russia continue to preoccupy Western papers in occasional commentaries like one today in Spain's ABC daily. The paper looks back at the sinking of the Kursk submarine, and Moscow's delay in seeking help to rescue its sailors, and sees signs not only of economic but moral problems in the Kremlin.

ABC writes in an editorial that the main purpose of any democratic constitution is to protect the rights and lives of citizens, but Russia's leaders preferred to sacrifice the sailors, it says, "on the alter of an inherited concept which is almost ridiculous today -- [the concept] of being a superpower." The editorial continues: "the disasters that have struck the most emblematic symbols of Russian technology -- the latest-generation nuclear submarine Kursk and the fabulous Ostankino tower -- and the deplorable reactions of the authorities are only warning lights concerning the other miseries of Russia's political and economic elite." It concludes: "The most serious of those is without doubt, [the elite's] moral misery."

With world leaders due to convene at the United Nations in New York beginning Wednesday, several papers are looking ahead to the event.


Britain's Times says the summit will see the leaders vying for world attention in an event where anything of real substance will come from their private meetings on the sidelines. The paper writes: "More than 150 presidents, princes and prime ministers -- and their spouses -- will descend on Manhattan to discuss globalization, peacekeeping and world poverty at the United Nations' Millennium Summit which runs from Wednesday to Friday." The commentary continues: "The UN debate will, however, be overshadowed by the hundreds of private meetings between the leaders, particularly President Clinton's effort to clinch a Middle East peace deal with [Yasser] Arafat and Ehud Barak."


France's Liberation looks ahead to the summit with commentary today calling for the leaders to strengthen their commitment to the international organization. Writers Bernard Cazeneuve and Paul Quiles say that the world cannot afford to see the UN fail in trying to keep the peace because failure will only legitimize intervention by regional powers. They also say the world cannot accept the resistance or lack of willpower many countries show toward creating civil societies. But the writers argue that if the UN is to reach its goals it needs more support. And they call on the leaders who will meet in Manhattan to remember that any inability of the UN to act effectively is due to the leaders' own failure to give it sufficient resources. Or to accept its intervention in areas of the world where their own national interests are at stake.


Commentary in the Chicago Tribune also addresses the question of how to make the UN more effective and credible. The newspaper writes that "when the United Nations was founded in the wake of World War II, its charter proclaimed it aimed to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war." But, the paper continues, "the proliferation of regional conflicts since the end of the Cold War has harshly tested its most fundamental mission -- to keep the peace."

The paper says part of the UN problem is "formidable bureaucracy" and "appalling staff shortages." The Chicago Tribune concludes: "It is up to its member states to give it the tools to [carry out peacekeeping missions]. If the U.S. won't keep its own financial commitments to the world body, it risks losing leverage to seek UN help in areas of American interest from Kosovo to Iraq."

(Anthony Georgieff in Copenhagen and RFE/RL's Aurora Gallego contributed to this report)