Prague, 4 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Commentary in the Western press today and over the weekend is dominated by the reactions to U.S. President George W. Bush's State of the Union speech last week (29 January), the World Economic Forum ending today in New York City, and events in the Middle East. Other topics include the future of Iran and what lessons global governments can learn from groups as disparate as Amnesty International and Al-Qaeda.
THE BOSTON GLOBE:
An editorial in "The Boston Globe" says that U.S. President George W. Bush "committed a gratuitous blunder in his State of the Union [address] when he lumped together the disparate regimes in North Korea, Iran, and Iraq as 'an axis of evil arming to threaten the peace of the world.'" The editorial says Bush suggested that North Korea, Iran, and Iraq, "despite their unmistakable differences, ought to be treated as though they represent three versions of the same threat," and used terms "that were too simplistic."
It continues, saying: "It is evident that the danger Bush wished to describe emanates not simply from a state becoming a nuclear power but from the conduct and assumed intentions of that state. In this regard the differences separating North Korea, Iran, and Iraq are far more relevant than the similarity of their quest for weapons of mass destruction." The U.S., the paper suggests, "needs to pursue distinct policies toward each" of these nations.
The paper suggests that Bush was also hasty in lumping Iraq and Iran into the same category. "By speaking of those two bitter foes as if both are now equal targets of American wrath, Bush obtusely played into the hands of both [Iraqi leader] Saddam [Hussein] and the Iranian hard-liners." Sounding tough, the paper concludes, is not the same as "acting smart."
THE NEW YORK TIMES:
In "The New York Times," staff writer Serge Schmemann discusses the five-day World Economic Forum ending today in New York. He says the WEF's most popular sessions "grew out of the issues of the day -- security, terrorism, Islam, American power, antiglobalization." The forum continues to draw many powerful people mainly because it offers an "unparalleled concentration of other powerful people," he writes.
But Schmemann cites one participant as saying it also offers a setting in which to criticize people and policies, forcing "exposure to the issues of the day that most of the business participants had little time for." He notes that a European labor leader reproved forum participants on the dismal plight of workers, warning that antiglobalization sentiment would continue to grow unless their concerns were addressed. Schmemann says on the street with antiglobalization protesters, his statements might have proved alarming. At the forum, however, his critique prompted discussion.
Schmemann writes that the forum's founder and organizer, Klaus Schwab, "has sought to bring some of the street anger that has confronted economic summits in recent years into his exclusive gatherings. If some participants thought it a palliative, no-risk device for the rich and powerful to make a show of caring, [others] said that at the least it allowed the satraps to explore the sentiments of a world from which their rank often insulated them."
An editorial in today's "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" looks at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and says there are three universally accepted rules that can be applied to such a hopeless situation. First, things must get really bad before anything gets better. Second, in Israel, the prevailing feeling is that war is the only way to peace and an assurance of security. And third, security can only be achieved through secret talks, provided there is mutual trust. Bearing these rules in mind, the paper says, there are some faint signs of a turn in Mideast relations.
The first axiom applies to the current tensions between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat: their relationship, the paper says, could not be worse. But it adds: "There is no one better than General Sharon to make a turnabout for the sake of peace. For in the event of a compromise, nobody could accuse him of selling-out Israel's interests." The paper says all that remains is to take a step toward negotiations, and surprisingly, it notes, Sharon is doing just that, by holding secret meetings with top Palestinian officials last week.
The editorial calls this move "a gentle start," although there are no signs of an advance in confidence building. But it says when Sharon arrives at the White House on 7 February, U.S. President Bush will demand more than half-hearted gestures.
In a contribution to Britain's "Financial Times," "Foreign Policy" magazine editor Moises Naim suggests reasons for the rising influence of nongovernmental groups. He says rights groups like Amnesty International or terrorist networks like Al-Qaeda are "loose networks of individuals united by a shared passion for a single cause, and thanks to cheaper communication and transport, each can project its influence globally. [Their] effectiveness derives from the single-minded devotion of their idealistic activists," he writes. In countries where political parties can be banned or stifled, he says, NGOs become "the only channel of political participation."
This often happens in the Middle East, he says. In other countries, NGOs grew rapidly "because they were less tainted by corruption, [generally] had clearer ideals, a less hierarchical structure, and a closer relationship with their members."
NGOs also have the advantage "of having a clear mission," Naim says. "[Members] rarely lost sight of what their organizations stood for. All these factors led new cohorts of activists, who in the past would have gravitated toward political parties, toward NGOs instead." Naim says the rise of NGOs is generally "a welcome trend." But he adds, "What is far less welcome [is] the erosion in the public standing of political parties, which in many countries [has] led to their virtual disappearance and replacement with ad hoc electoral machines."
THE NEW YORK TIMES:
An editorial in "The New York Times" looks at the situation in the Middle East in light of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's public appeal for negotiations, and is critical of both the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships.
While it says Arafat has made some "tragic failures" and has not done enough to curb terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians, it argues that the policies of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon -- which have turned Arafat into a virtual prisoner in his Ramallah compound -- are themselves ill-conceived. In addition, the paper says: "The growing harshness of Israeli military practices in the West Bank and Gaza is creating thousands of potential suicide bombers and Israel-haters as well as coarsening a generation of young Israeli soldiers. The endless growth of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is depriving Palestinians of hope." While Israel "must vigorously fight terror to protect its people," it says, "the destruction of hundreds of houses, the innumerable roadblocks and daily Palestinian humiliation aimed largely at protecting the settlements are counterproductive."
But, the paper writes, "there are alternatives to the Israeli policy. Terror can be combated without humiliating nearly every Palestinian inhabitant of the area. Mr. Arafat can be subjected to diplomatic rebuffs without demeaning all Palestinians. [Sharon] owes it to his people to tell them that their future must involve dignified national self-determination for a neighboring Palestinian state not carved up by Israeli settlements."
In the French daily "Liberation," Nathalie Dubois discusses the international reaction to the U.S. President George W. Bush's State of the Union speech last week (29 January). She says Bush's "bellicose" reference to Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as an "axis of evil" that threatens the globe with attempts to develop weapons of mass destruction has drawn recriminations from around the world.
She notes that Pyongyang called Bush's comments a "quasi declaration of war," and even NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson cited the lack of "convincing evidence" for Bush's statements. Spain, current holder of the rotating EU presidency, made it clear the EU will continue normal relations with Iran and will make its decisions "independently" of Bush's remarks. But Dubois adds, "Within the European front, London was distinguished, as usual, by its support for [what London called] the 'entirely justified' concerns of the Americans."
Both Russia and China also criticized the speech, making it clear that they were "not favorably" disposed to Bush's new rhetoric. "In the Muslim world, Bush's threats were rejected with the same force," says Dubois. "The Palestinian camp denounces it as a 'declaration of war' aimed at protecting Israel." She adds that even the king of Jordan, a long-time ally of the United States, warned against destabilizing the region by engendering a new crisis in Iraq.
NEUE ZUERCHER ZEITUNG:
An analysis in the Swiss "Neue Zuercher Zeitung" looks at Europe's attitude toward U.S. in light of President George W. Bush's State of the Union speech last week.
The commentary says that while the president's address was praised in the United States, Europeans are not accustomed to such simple, universally comprehensible speeches and resent clear-cut talk about good and evil. "That is just not done," the paper says. Europeans perceive the speech as somewhat crude American self-confidence in fighting terrorism while "a great deal of political porcelain has been and will be destroyed."
The Swiss paper then discusses European weaknesses in the NATO alliance and adds, "Europe's importance in the world will only increase when it surmounts its euro problems and blends its political energy to assume responsibilities."
The commentary says there will always be some friction and rhetoric on both sides of the Atlantic. But it argues that common interests have always proved stronger. "Even a president who is remarkably outspoken in referring to 'an axis of evil' knows the U.S. cannot act on its own and that in the final analysis he needs friends and allies," the paper says.
THE WASHINGTON POST:
A editorial in "The Washington Post" notes that U.S. President Bush's "axis of evil" statement "provoked consternation in Europe [and] indignation among the accused." But the paper says Bush's observations on the three nations were correct. "People in all three nations live brutally checked by secret police who employ torture and other means of repression. Who wants to argue that this is not evil?" the editorial asks. It adds that all three regimes "represent potential threats. [They] have supported terrorists in the past; they are seeking or have acquired nuclear weapons, poison gas, or the means to conduct hideous germ warfare."
The editorial continues: "The U.S. government is not obliged to wait for [an] attack to take action; in fact, the obligation is to do everything possible to preempt such an assault." But, it adds, that "does not mean the United States should go right to war against all, or indeed any, of the regimes." Instead, it should focus on what the paper calls "the most immediate threat" -- the Al-Qaeda terrorist network.
The editorial goes on to say the nations most opposed to U.S. action in Iraq are also those "least willing to enforce any measures designed to keep Iraq's dictator in check. [They] and other nations ought to come together in seeking ways to defang" his regime, the paper concludes.
An editorial in Britain's "The Times" looks at the obstacles facing Iranian efforts to reform. The paper writes that a "loose coalition" of reformist groups "has emerged to challenge Iran's hard-line leadership, its economic failure and its cultural rigidity. [At] the ballot box the reformists have triumphed, twice securing the presidency for Muhammad Reza Khatami."
But "The Times" says victory in Iranian elections "does not translate easily and simply into power for the victor. President Khatami is surrounded on all sides by hard-liners loyal to the supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei. The opponents of reform control the courts and the security and defence establishments. [Reformist] newspapers are closed down and critics of the regime arrested," it says.
The editorial goes on to suggest that the Western world should become more involved in Iranian reform movements. "The Times" writes: "Telling the truth about Iran's involvement in international terrorism, maintaining pressure on the Iranian authorities to desist from abusing human rights, supplying material and emotional support to dissidents, and promoting peaceful change will all help to advance the cause of reform." The paper says that in the past, the West has not done enough to encourage reform. "This must not happen again," it says.
(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba contributed to this report.)