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Western Press Review: The Laeken Summit, Afghanistan, And The Middle East

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 17 December 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Several commentaries in the Western press today look at the results of the weekend's EU summit in the Belgian town of Laeken. Others continue to examine the situation in the Middle East and the ongoing U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan.


In Germany's "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," Michael Stabenow considers the weekend's Laeken summit and says EU member nations have too often put national interests before the interests of the union as a whole. "Yet a viable Europe is now more important than ever," he says. At the Laeken meeting, "EU leaders specified for the first time which 10 countries could conceivably join the Union by 2004. A joint immigration and asylum policy also appears more urgent than ever before and the terrorist attacks of 11 September showed how important it is for Europe to take more responsibility for securing peace and stability on its own doorstep -- whether in the Balkans or in the Middle East. The same applies to Europe's involvement in Afghanistan."

In March, an EU convention will meet to focus on the question "of how best to narrow the gap between the EU's institutions and its citizens," writes Stabenow. "It will also try to give top priority to those interests all the member states have in common. But the first step, he says, "is to define what these common interests are. Only then can it be decided which tasks should be handled by the Union and which by the individual member states."


An editorial in the British "Financial Times" says that at Laeken, the EU member countries decided to launch "a full-scale constitutional convention," which will radically reform EU institutions to ensure that they are capable of handling enlargement "without becoming inefficient and undemocratic."

The paper notes that critics might argue that the EU has merely decided to embark on more self-reflection at what it calls "a moment of international crisis." But such critics "miss the point," the paper writes. "It is precisely because of the grim international outlook that the EU needs to enlarge, and to become more democratic and relevant in the process. Enlargement is politically essential and already overdue. It will export stability and prosperity to Eastern and Southern Europe, and underpin democracy and respect for the rule of law in those regions. But it will not succeed unless the EU institutions remain efficient and are seen to be legitimate."

The paper says it will now be up to Chairman Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the former French president, "to turn the ambitions into practical [reality]. Two principles should be paramount: keep it simple, and keep it open. The end result should be an EU that provides added value to existing nation states, not excessive regulation and interference."


In a news analysis in "The New York Times," David Sanger considers what the next step might be for the U.S.-led campaign against terrorism. Sanger asks: Is the Bush administration taking the war to Iraq, "where Saddam Hussein is clearly seeking nuclear and biological weapons? Or does it make more sense to focus on easier Al-Qaeda targets -- Somalia, or perhaps Indonesia and the Philippines? Or, alternatively, will events pick Phase Two for him, perhaps in Pakistan or the Middle East?" Sanger says that "[terrorist] attacks in Israel and India have threatened to open new battlegrounds from the Palestinian territories to Kashmir that could unravel the coalition."

If suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden escaped into Pakistan over the weekend -- after his Al-Qaeda cave complex in Tora Bora was destroyed -- Sanger says Pakistan may be where the next stage of the campaign takes place. But he warns that this might be "treacherous ground," for the U.S. administration.

And if war starts in the Middle East, and the U.S. finds itself coming to the aid of Israel, its plans in the region will be undermined. Sanger says, "Arab nations that have supported the fight against terrorists would probably once again feel compelled to line up against Washington." And Sanger says this would, more than anything else, undercut the Bush administration's anti-terrorism campaign.


In the "International Herald Tribune," a news analysis by John Vinocur considers the difficulties faced by the European Union in forming a common foreign policy. Vinocur says that there is a great disparity between the EU's "hopes, or pretensions, in foreign and security policy and the reality of how its members' contradictory interests seem to block the EU from ever becoming a decisive, unitary force in world politics." He says EU leaders demonstrated at Laeken once again that, "when it comes to issues of war and peace, a palpable, influential European external policy is mostly not there."

"On the Middle East, or on fighting terrorism, the EU's unity appeared uncertain. Concerning the dispatch of troops for a multinational force in Afghanistan, or the capabilities of a mostly national European rapid reaction force, the degree of rhetorical inflation and the absence of practical content was striking. [At] Laeken, Europe's treatment of virtually every foreign and security issue it faced seemed divisive. The situation left the clear impression that what the EU said as a group was subject to immediate revision by individual countries or more pressing realities."

Vinocur concludes that the EU's handling of foreign policy seems to indicate the current limits of its abilities as a world power.


In the "Financial Times," Andrew Gowers, Robert Cottrell, and Andrew Jack discuss various aspects of Vladimir Putin's first term as Russian president. They describe him as a patient and pragmatic leader, who is making two gambles "big enough to make or break this first term of his presidency."

His first bet, say the authors, "is that the terrorist attacks on the U.S. have created the conditions for developing new relations of trust and common purpose between Russia and the West." The U.S. wants Russia as an ally in the antiterrorism campaign and Europe welcomes their increased cooperation. His second, and riskier, bet is that he can "carry the rest of Russia with him in this fundamental shift towards the West."

"A cynical, even hostile, view of the West is still widely held within the Russian political and military establishments. Putin will struggle to impose a durable pro-Western shift in foreign policy [unless] he has some concrete gains to show for his efforts. So far he has precious little."

The authors say Putin acknowledges the U.S. had a legal right to pull out of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, but add that he remains "puzzled" as to why U.S. President George W. Bush didn't find a "more accommodating formula."


In a commentary in France's daily "Liberation," Jacques Amalric writes that on the last evening of Ramadan, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat resolved to do "what he should have done a long time ago: to condemn the anti-Israeli attacks, to undertake to track down the financiers of them, and to order the 'total and immediate end' to all the armed operations directed against the Hebrew state."

But Arafat had no choice, says Amalric. This was the price demanded not so much by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon -- "who has decided from now on to ignore the Palestinian president and deny him representation" -- but by the United States. Now it remains for Arafat to do what is most difficult: to turn words into deeds.

Arafat's influence on the situation has diminished as the influence of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad organizations have grown among the Palestinian population, says Amalric. He adds that the future role of the United States will be crucial to political negotiations, to establish good faith. But U.S. President Bush -- who has just recalled his envoy to the region, Anthony Zinni, for more consultations in Washington -- has not indicated that he is ready to assume this responsibility, says Amalric.


In "The Christian Science Monitor," Tom Regan says that if the "tit-for-tat violence in Israel [is] to ever stop, then two things must happen immediately."

First, he says, "Yasser Arafat must be replaced as the head of the Palestinian Authority. Not just because he doesn't seem to be able to stop militants from attacking innocent Israelis, but also because he and his administration have become corrupt and undemocratic. His time has passed, and if the PA hopes to regain the confidence of both Israelis who want peace and the Palestinian people, the PA must act before organizations like Hamas and Islamic Jihad become too powerful to stop."

Second, says Regan, the issue of the increasing number of illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem must be dealt with. "In spite of the Israeli government's insistence that it has a 'right' to create these settlements, they are violations of international law, including the fourth Geneva Convention [regarding the protection of civilians during wartime], and fly in the face of more United Nations resolutions and directives than you can imagine."

Regan says that Israel must "deal with the fact that its own actions are helping to create the fuel that feeds these incidents."


In the "Los Angeles Times," Robin Wright looks at the dangers that may persist in Afghanistan even after the fall of the Taliban. "The first danger is that defeated Taliban fighters who remain armed could take to the hills and regroup. Steeped in religious fanaticism, now powerless and most without alternative skills, they could either strike out or engage in lawlessness to undermine the new authorities."

"The second broad danger is that one or more ethnic groups or tribes could decide they're not happy with the political arrangements and opt to launch attacks, harass the interim administration or otherwise undermine the fragile transition."

Wright says that according to analysts, the internal dynamics in Afghanistan "will be particularly important during the six-month transition. [All] political forces will be jockeying intensely for position in the provisional government that is set to take office in six months to write a new constitution and pave the way for a permanent government and a new ruling structure." Wright adds that ethnic factions and tribal leaders "are already complaining that they're not adequately represented in the interim administration set to take power Saturday [22 December].


In Britain's "The Guardian," Madeleine Bunting says that the coverage of the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan has played down the civilian casualties and 4 million refugees displaced by the bombings. The obvious difference in the media coverage of this war and media coverage of Western interventions in the former Yugoslavia, says Bunting, reflects a difference in Western military objectives. Whereas in Kosovo the West needed to emphasize the suffering of Albanian Kosovars to maintain support for its intervention, in Afghanistan dwelling on the suffering of innocent Afghans could diminish support for the war.

"What has been strikingly absent is the humanization of this war. Unlike in Bosnia and Kosovo, our screens and newspapers have not been filled with the terrible trauma of recognizable individuals and their families. The cameras haven't hovered on the faces of shocked tearful children, and the impotent anguish of their parents and grandparents."

Estimates of civilian casualties "are always circumspect," she continues. "[There] has been no sense of outrage about these atrocities. Yet the number of Afghan noncombatants reported killed [in] this war is edging close to those who died in the World Trade Center. The latter has provoked global outrage, the former is accepted with an astonishing equanimity as a necessary price to pay for two very uncertain prognostications -- Afghanistan's peaceful future and ridding the world of the evil Al-Qaeda."