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Western Press Review: Commentary Examines U.S. Embarrassment, U.S. Defense

  • Don Hill

Prague, 16 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Much of the commentary in our survey of the Western press today demonstrates that U.S. defense cannot be regarded as merely a U.S. domestic issue. It's an issue that affects other governments and people from the Kremlin to Tokyo and points in between.

DIE WELT:

When a U.S. submarine collided a week ago (9 February) with the Japanese fishing vessel Ehime Maru near Hawaii, the Western press saw the incident as tragic, one of those events that unavoidably occur. But Die Welt's Uwe Schmidt writes from Washington today that new information makes the submarine's mission sound like, in Schmidt's words, "a military pleasure cruise." It is, she says, an "unpalatable impression."

The commentator says: "A belated admission by the U.S. Navy that civilians were on board the USS Greenville [submarine] has reinforced suspicions that last Friday's collision with a Japanese training ship off Hawaii was a case of astounding negligence. The Navy revealed that guests were sitting at two of the submarine's three control positions as it performed the rapid ascent drill."

Schmidt notes that "the U.S. Navy refused to make public names of the guests on board the submarine." She writes: "Navy insiders suspect the captain of the Greenville may have been distracted by his duties as a VIP host."

WASHINGTON POST:

The International Herald Tribune carries today a Washington Post editorial that also raises the question of whether civilian visitors may have distracted the sub's commander. The editorial says that the collision tarnished the U.S. Navy's reputation, and adds: "Now the navy is compounding the damage by withholding vital information about the accident and the ongoing investigation."

The editorial goes on: "Navy spokesmen have refused to reveal the identities of the civilians at the controls or of the 14 other guests who were on board, even though they were participating in an official function on public property and have been involved in a serious international incident. Even investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board encountered a Navy stonewall when they tried to get the names."

THE TIMES:

Britain's Times daily takes a similar tack in its editorial. The paper undoubtedly understates the case when it says that "the Pentagon's handling of the affair has not been sensitive." It adds, without comment, that it was retired Admiral Richard Macke who arranged to place the 16 civilian guests aboard the submarine. The Navy forced Macke into retirement in 1996 for monumentally insensitive remarks he made while stationed on the Japanese island Okinawa five years ago.

The Times' editorial also says: "The guests were major donors to the restoration appeal for the decommissioned USS Missouri, aboard which the Japanese formally surrendered in September 1945. More pertinently, the submarine was not, as the Navy first maintained, within a test and trial area well marked on nautical charts, but about two miles outside it. And, after four days delay, the Navy admitted that, as the ship performed an emergency surfacing drill, two of the civilians were actually at the controls."

It continues: "Whether or not that affected a maneuver that is known to be risky, even their presence could have distracted the crew. Recorded images from the ship's periscope monitor and magnetic-tape record of sonar readings, both used to detect the presence of shipping, have yet to be produced. As the trawler sank, its hull broken, the Greeneville made no attempt to pluck survivors from the water."

The editorial comments: "Condoleezza Rice, [U.S.] national security adviser, finally promised 'a complete and transparent investigation.' It had better be prompt, too."

WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE:

The Wall Street Journal Asia's editorial defends the U.S., saying: "It is hard to see why the U.S.-Japanese alliance should be affected [by the incident]." The editorial recalls two incidents in the past 13 years in which Japanese vessels accidentally killed U.S. citizens.

The editorial concludes: "The possibility for human error is always with us, and there is no evidence that either [country's] military is cavalier about protecting allied lives." The Wall Street Journal Asia editorial makes no mention of the irregularities described by Britain's Times.

CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR:

Commentator Daniel Schorr writes half-jokingly today in the U.S. Christian Science Monitor daily that the United States is engaged not in a cold war, but in a battle of the acronyms. In Schorr's words: "NMD -- national missile defense. You're going to hear a lot in coming months about NMD along with ABM, the antiballistic missile treaty. And you're going to be hearing that the Russians, the Chinese, and a whole lot of other people are worried about what NMD will do to ABM."

INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE:

As if to demonstrate Schorr's point, foreign affairs columnist Flora Lewis writes in the International Herald Tribune: "The top officials of the [U.S. administration of President George] Bush are saying as often and loudly as they can that they are committed to missile defense. European leaders keep saying clearly and specifically that they are building a rapid reaction force [or RFF] to act independently. Since each side objects to the other's plans," she goes on, "the assumption is now taking hold that there will be a trade-off, and both projects will be carried out." She comments: "That is a weird, wasteful and provocative idea [that, actually, is] about politics and abstract notions of sovereignty and status."

Lewis summarizes arguments for both NMD and RRF, and adds: "There is something airy-fairy, other-worldly about all these arguments, and yet they are talking about the life and death of many millions of people, and about the spending of many [thousands of millions] of dollars. It is essential to force the debate away from hypothetical trade-offs and back down to hard security issues. This is not a game."

NEW YORK TIMES:

The New York Times says in an editorial that defense appears to be the U.S. government's theme this week. The newspaper says: "We want to dwell today on the subject with which [Bush] quite properly began -- the pay, housing and morale of U.S. troops." The editorial says: "More than 5,000 U.S. military personnel still need food stamps to balance their monthly budgets. Housing conditions are even more scandalous. Of the 300,000 military housing units, 200,000 are rated inadequate by the services' own minimal standards."

NEW YORK TIMES:

Virtually from the outset of the post-Cold War era, Russia's leaders and much of its press have charged that the United States can't seem to surrender Cold-War-think. So have some U.S. critics, and the New York Times today publishes one such commentary by research scientist and author Cindy Williams. Her subject, she says, is President Bush's promise of a total review of "U.S. military strategy, missions, forces and weapons" and spending, and the man appointed to direct it, Andrew Marshall, a former Rand Corporation executive and, in Williams' phrase, "one of the fathers of American nuclear strategy."

The commentary says: "Marshall's strategic review can make the difference between a military that was shaped by the Cold War and one that can handle the needs of the future. Of course, changing the way dollars flow across the services will not be easy. Pentagon insiders say the service chiefs hope to continue to divide the pie as in the past." It continues: "To counter this budgetary non-aggression pact, President Bush and [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld will have to build a coalition of their own with members of Congress who favor a modern military or have other priorities for projected surpluses. They may even have to fire a few people who disagree."

Williams concludes: "Mr. Bush must be willing to use up real political capital to push his ideas through. But the result will reward the effort. The nation deserves a fundamental break from military spending practices that for decades have allocated money across the services only for the sake of peace inside the Pentagon."

FINANCIAL TIMES:

Britain's Financial Times says that a scandal involving Ukraine President Leonid Kuchma is a bad wind that may blow good news for Russia. The newspaper says in a staff-written commentary: "When a president talks of his own country's possible collapse, a crisis has come. Such is the case in Ukraine." The commentary says that Kuchma often has used the Russian card to play against the West. Now, it adds, Russian President Vladimir Putin may make the last play.

The commentary goes on: "The crisis in Ukraine has moved far beyond its immediate cause: the disappearance and probable murder last year of Georgy Gongadze, an Internet journalist and fierce critic of the president." It says: "Unless Mr. Kuchma can pull off a remarkable recovery, this is the endgame, of sorts, to a wasted decade for Ukraine."

The commentary also says: "Mr. Putin, not a great man for warmth himself, insisted that [his visit to Kiev last weekend] was strictly business. Ukraine and Russia signed agreements to cooperate in defense, space and energy. Some in Russia saw Mr. Putin as offering his beleaguered counterpart a gesture of support. Others wondered if he was seeing how Russia might profit from Mr. Kuchma's decline."

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