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Western Press Review: Russian-U.S. Relations, Saudi Arabia, Propaganda War

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 22 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The Western press today looks at last Friday's (19 October) Shanghai economic summit and what it means for relations between world leaders. Other topics include the antiterrorism campaign, as ground troops move into Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia's role in the coalition draws greater attention -- and doubts.


An editorial in Britain's "Financial Times" today says it is "reassuring" to see American and Russian leaders find common ground at Friday's (19 October) Shanghai summit. The editorial says, "It is vital to the campaign against terrorism that the globe's three biggest powers (Russia, China and the U.S.) deal sensibly with their differences."

Possible agreements on previously contentious issues, it adds, are beginning to emerge. Washington may now be willing to scale back its nuclear arsenal in exchange for Russian agreement to amending the 1972 anti-ballistic missile treaty. On NATO enlargement, Russia appears to have softened its "outright hostility" to enlargement and has begun to cooperate with the alliance. But, the "FT" continues, "the difficult issue of the Baltic states has yet to be addressed." And Russian President Vladimir Putin's suggestions that Russia might one day join the alliance "should also be gently pushed aside. [NATO] may well be due for another review of its role in a post-Cold War world threatened by global terrorism. But it must decide its own future."

The paper concludes, "The [U.S. and Russia] must seize the opportunities created by the crisis, especially as their actions also benefit others, including the European Union."


An editorial in "The Wall Street Journal Europe" editorial also looks at U.S.-Russian relations, and says the question remains as to whether President Putin has really decided to align himself with the West. The paper writes that it's "nice to think so. But our own view is that these events represent a clear-eyed perception of Russia's national interests. Mr. Putin's support for the Afghan anti-terror war has certainly been full-throated, but then again he wants the U.S. to return the favor by winking at his Chechen cruelties." Russia also hopes for debt rescheduling, World Trade Organization membership, and U.S.-Russian bilateral arms control, as well as more say in the next round of NATO expansion.

The paper says that the "acid test" of Putin's cooperation "will be his attitude toward missile defenses. And on that score there has also been some progress, with negotiators reporting that Mr. Putin is willing to allow some U.S. programs, even if he doesn't yet sanction complete U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty. In return, Mr. Bush would agree to reduce the number of offensive nuclear missiles on both sides, which means less expense for Russia. This has always been the promise of defenses -- that they make the world safer by allowing smaller offensive arsenals."


The German press also looks at the APEC conference and closer U.S.-Russian ties. The "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" describes how the Chinese hosts provided the statesmen with silk jackets. This change in dress says the commentary saw "both President George W. Bush and President Vladimir Putin taking on a new role in the world theater." It was important for Bush to impress on his colleagues in Shanghai that the terrorist attack on New York and Washington was an onslaught on peace throughout the world. Equally important for him, the paper says, was his meeting with Putin.

Previous meetings saw a slight rapprochement. The alliance has now been strengthened in Shanghai. But "the play in costumes will not be sufficient. Only when Bush and Putin take a realistic view of the obstacles can their intentions be considered realistic." Moscow must first overcome its suspicion of America; Washington, in spite of this new alliance, must not forget its condemnation of Russian policy in Chechnya.

In conclusion, the editorial remarks that though the statesmen may once again play "dress-up" -- donning cowboy hats next month in Texas for their scheduled talks -- but must be prepared to seriously discuss their differences.


Dietrich Alexander in "Die Welt" speaks about peace, joy, and APEC. He writes it's hard to believe that U.S. and China were at loggerheads only a few weeks ago. Now, the emphasis is on the scourge of terrorism. Old quarrels have been forgotten and human rights issues are being ignored. The U.S. has no intention of damaging a strong alliance against terrorism. Friendship with Russia and China, both important partners, is now paramount. The question, Alexander writes, is "what will remain of this alliance when the Taliban, Osama bin Laden, and Al-Qaeda are defeated?"


In the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," Udo Ulfkotte considers the emerging role of Arab television network Al-Jazeera in the campaign against terrorism. To win the propaganda war for "the hearts and minds" of the public, it says, will be a decisive factor in the success of the campaign.

The paper writes: "[Al-Jazeera] is playing the same role today that CNN did in Baghdad during the 1990-91 Gulf War, providing uncensored pictures of the destruction and interviewing Iraqi government members. [But] both [networks] had to pay a high price: To broadcast exclusive pictures from Baghdad, CNN had to let itself be used for the regime's propaganda purposes, just as Al-Jazeera is doing now when it uses its direct contacts with those behind the terrorist acts."

The paper says that the entry of a new network has changed the situation on the world's public stage, which was previously dominated by CNN and a few other Western networks. But, it says, "the Taliban, which is now counting on propaganda to defeat its opponents, may have miscalculated. The messages with which [suspected terrorist Osama] bin Laden stirs up hate against the 'infidels' are producing a propaganda effect counter to that intended: They are increasing the demand for free information especially in the Arab-Islamic world. And on that score," the paper says, "the Taliban has nothing to offer."


A "Los Angeles Times" editorial considers what will follow the potential defeat of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. It writes: "Whatever regime succeeds the Taliban must not provide a haven for terrorists like Osama bin Laden, prime suspect in the 11 September attacks. Further, it must meet at least minimum human rights standards, including letting women work and girls attend school. The key to a new government will be the Pashtuns, the country's biggest ethnic group."

The paper notes that a government dominated by the largely Tajik and Uzbek Northern Alliance would be unacceptable to many Pashtun Afghans. "If [the Northern Alliance] tries to impose itself it will launch yet another descent into warlord battles of the type that plagued Afghanistan after Soviet troops were driven out more than a decade ago."

The antiterrorism coalition, it continues, must be careful not to allow the imposition of a government from outside: "The United Nations, including peacekeeping troops, will have a key role in rebuilding Afghanistan. Giving food to millions who are malnourished or starving will be the first priority, even before a government is formed. [But] peacekeeping troops cannot become an occupation army; Afghanistan has an unblemished record of repelling invaders. Nor can any government be perceived as imposed by an outsider, be it the United States, Pakistan or Iran."


An editorial in France's "Le Monde" says Shanghai's APEC summit featured what it calls a "lovely diplomatic performance." It says: "As they dash into a long military campaign in Afghanistan, the United States has the friendly support of China and Russia. This [support] was far from certain. In Beijing and Moscow, one has often tried to show one's weight in foreign policy by opposing Washington. China and Russia even recently strengthened their cooperation to denounce what they qualify as American hegemonism."

If this new alliance between the largest arms exporters leads to a lessening of arms diffusion around the planet, the paper says, "so much the better." But, "Le Monde" adds, this latest alliance may just be the latest round of realpolitik. The U.S. wants the support of Russia and China. Beijing wants silence on what it considers its internal affairs, the issue of Tibet and China's minority Uighur Muslim population. Russian President Putin has also fixed a price on his support -- the tacit permission of Washington as he leads the war against the Chechens.

The paper says a pervasive feeling of unease accompanies this new partnership: "This alliance seems like a cynical expression of a brutal game played by the major powers."


In a column published in the "International Herald Tribune," James Bennet of "The New York Times" looks at the lasting impact of last week's assassination of hard-line Israeli minister Rehavam Zeevi. He says that the assassination has created "a bitter impasse" between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Bennet writes: "Israel is conducting the broadest military campaign since the peace effort initiated by the Oslo agreement of 1993 and a debate is continuing at the highest level of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's government over whether [to] undermine the legitimacy of Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, and his Palestinian Authority."

Following the assassination, Sharon announced that Arafat must hand over those responsible or face retaliation. Bennet writes: "As a result, whatever his own inclinations, Mr. Sharon has set high expectations for action against Mr. Arafat, higher than may be met even by the military actions now being conducted. Even before the killing of Mr. Zeevi, Mr. Sharon was under enormous pressure from the political right in Israel."

Bennet says Arafat, for his part, has repeatedly failed to make good on his promise to jail militant extremists. Bennet says that if Arafat "is not persuaded that he will make great gains by alienating the militants, [he] almost certainly will not take the risk. Right now, the prospects for gains are bleak."


A news analysis in "The Boston Globe" says that in order to maintain power, the Saudi Arabian royal family has made a series of Faustian pacts. The paper writes: "With Wahhabi clerics they have bartered control over education and social mores for political approval. By making lavish donations to Islamic social welfare charities that the [U.S.] Treasury Department has listed as funding sources for terrorist groups, they have submitted to a protection racket veiled in religious and political rhetoric. Out of fear and insecurity, they have been nourishing their own worst enemies."

The "Globe" says that these "blatant contradictions [are] characteristic of the Saudi royals' survival technique. Fearful of their subjects, their clerical critics, and their neighbors across the Gulf, they try to be all things to all parties."

The paper goes on to say that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein now poses a prominent threat to the Saudi regime. And, the paper adds, "Now, they and their oil fields are at the mercy of [Osama] bin Laden, whose great grievance against them is that they retained U.S. soldiers on sacred Saudi soil a decade after Saddam was driven out of Kuwait."

The "Globe" concludes that "in the long run, the best hope for stability in Saudi Arabia will be an end to royal corruption, the reform of an economy that has shamefully squandered the kingdom's vast oil profits, the modernizing of the country's educational system, and an opening to representative and transparent governance."


In "The New York Times," Barbara Crossette writes: "From the eerily passionless voice of Osama bin Laden to the fevered chants on the streets of the Middle East and across the Islamic world, a litany of historical grievances against the West is being aired. [But] what has not emerged [is] any clear vision of the world these militants want to create."

Crossette goes on to say that the message delivered by bin Laden is incongruous. While the Saudi-born terrorist remains entrenched in Afghanistan, harbored by the Taliban leadership, "his grievances and his causes are not those of the Afghans." Afghans are not Arabs, nor were they ever colonized. Having successfully fought off invaders -- the British in the 19th century and the Russians in the 20th century -- they do not maintain a deep-seated resentment of the Western world.

Crossette goes on to note that bin Laden's attempts to appeal to Palestinians -- by relying upon their anger over U.S. support of Israel -- and to Iraqis, by criticizing the West for keeping sanctions that cause the Iraqi people to suffer more than their leaders, are similarly misguided. Crossette quotes Jon Alterman of the U.S. Institute of Peace as saying, "What has [bin Laden] done for the Palestinians? Nothing. What has he done for the children of Iraq? Nothing."

(Dora Slaba contributed to this press review)