Prague, 6 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Western commentary continues to focus today on U.S. President George W. Bush's State of the Union address and what it indicates for the future of U.S. foreign policy. In the speech, Bush referred to Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as an "axis of evil" and declared America's willingness to prevent these states from developing weapons of mass destruction, fueling international speculation as to his intentions.
Other topics include the Middle East ahead of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's visit to the United States; the obstacles facing Afghan interim Prime Minister Hamid Karzai; the ongoing violence in Chechnya; and Russian policy in the Caspian Basin.
THE WASHINGTON POST:
In "The Washington Post," staff writer Jackson Diehl writes from Kabul on the difficulties now facing Afghan interim Prime Minister Hamid Karzai. He seeks to continue the fight against Taliban and Al-Qaeda forces in the country but is one of the only Afghan leaders with no army of his own. He has requested more international security troops from Washington and London, but it remains uncertain whether these security forces will ever reach areas outside Kabul.
Diehl says that throughout the capital, "Karzai's isolation is only too readily apparent. The capital is plastered with hagiographic images [of] Ahmed Massoud, the ethnic Tajik military leader and warlord assassinated by Al-Qaeda." Diehl observes that troops from the British-led International Security Assistance Force "are less conspicuous than Massoud's old [forces]. Those forces are controlled not by Karzai but by the commanders of the former Northern Alliance, who now occupy the most powerful posts in his government..."
Diehl says Afghans must be provided with a greater sense of security before real progress can be made. Only then, he writes, will Karzai "be able to exercise the kind of authority he says the people want from his government. For now he can do little more than camp in his office [and] hope that the interests of the warlords and his foreign donors will coincide with the reconstruction projects he plans."
An editorial comment in Britain's "Financial Times" says that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has used the post-11 September mood in Washington to convince the Bush administration "of the merits of his policies. The U.S. now sees Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, as the key obstacle to peace."
The paper writes, "It is time, however, that the U.S. took a deeper look at the Palestinian-Israeli conflict." It says as Bush meets Sharon tomorrow, "the U.S. should consider whether backing Israel's military actions coincides with its own vision of Middle East peace. As expressed by Colin Powell, secretary of state, this vision involves the creation of a viable Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel."
The editorial says Sharon "has presided over a tougher policy and an escalation in the bloodshed. His peace formula -- a Palestinian state confined to land already controlled by the Palestinian Authority -- is seen by Palestinians as perpetual occupation." Even the Israeli public is beginning to falter in its support, says the paper.
The editorial says Palestinians also "must give up violence and seek a political solution." But pressure on Arafat alone will not solve anything. "The U.S. must demand that both sides take action," it says, and pressure Sharon to resume peace negotiations. This approach is in the interest of everyone.
INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE:
In a contribution to the "International Herald Tribune," Antony Blinken of the Center for Strategic and International Studies looks at U.S. President George W. Bush's State of the Union address on 29 January, in which he described Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as an "axis of evil."
Blinken says the real targets of Bush's "axis of evil" comments were not Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. "The intended audience was elsewhere: in France, Russia and China." Blinken says Bush's aim was to convince these countries that he is serious about taking on regimes that possess weapons of mass destruction and about destroying terrorist cells.
He writes: "The message to America's allies and friends is clear: Help us ratchet up the pressure now, or watch as we act unilaterally and militarily later. This strategy just might pay off." He adds, "Europeans, Russians and Chinese want to prevent unilateral American adventures."
Bush is asking Moscow and Beijing to crack down on the flow of weapons of mass destruction technology to and from Iran and North Korea; of France and Russia, to endorse weapons inspections for Iraq. Blinken says the Bush administration should also "put more energy into engaging these countries politically and economically."
Blinken says that what "Paris, Moscow and Beijing heard as a go-it-alone speech was a wake-up call to take a tougher line on hostile regimes with weapons of mass destruction -- regimes that might turn on them in the future."
FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE ZEITUNG:
An editorial in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" also comments on the impact of Bush's "axis of evil" pronouncement. Despite all the debate surrounding whether it was appropriate to point fingers at Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, the editorial notes that Baghdad has suddenly embarked on conspicuous diplomacy by offering negotiations with the UN without any strings attached. There is even hope of a resumption of UN arms inspections.
This, says the commentary, "would mark progress." Possibly, the paper assumes, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein calculates that meeting the UN halfway would avert a military attack. This time, the editorial says, Saddam is not playing games. Moreover, if he is genuine, then "Bush's unabashed rhetoric was efficacious, which perhaps was the desired effect."
Possibly, this could even mean a new, more tolerable form of sanctions, it concludes.
THE WASHINGTON TIMES:
An editorial in "The Washington Times" states that Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to have taken the September attacks on the U.S. "as a cue to step up the Russian military's genocidal atrocities in Chechnya." It says that Putin had "overseen genocidal atrocities in breakaway Chechnya ever since he launched Russia's second military campaign there in 1999.... [But] the brutality has intensified." The paper writes: "[Government] and military officials appear to have lost a-l-l fear of international rebuke."
The paper notes that when Chechen Foreign Minister Ilyas Akhmadov visited Washington in March, he met with "the highest-ranking State Department official ever to receive him, the acting assistant secretary of state for the region." But during Akhmadov's visit in January, the State Department would meet with him only unofficially, and not on government property. Even this unofficial meeting drew criticism from the Kremlin, however.
The paper says the U.S. administration seems to have "[bought] into Russia's fabricated rumors of a Chechen-Al-Qaeda nexus." But since Russia's claims of a connection cannot be corroborated, the paper writes, "Clearly [the] Chechen pleas to America are reasonable, and it would be our shame if they are not recognized."
In "Eurasia View," journalist and CIS affairs analyst Igor Torbakov says that in response to the growing U.S. presence in Central Asia, "Russia is targeting the Caspian Basin, seeking to enhance cooperation with Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan. The Kremlin is keen to resolve two inter-related strategic issues -- retaining control over the region's vast energy resources and resolving the question of the Caspian Sea's territorial division."
Torbakov says recent U.S. diplomatic initiatives have been matched by two Moscow summits, between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his respective counterparts, Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov and Azerbaijan's President Heidar Aliev. Torbakov notes that, "in order to forestall Russia's losing its monopoly on the transit of energy resources, Putin unveiled a proposal to Niyazov to form a Eurasian gas alliance" between the four gas-extracting CIS countries -- Russia, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan -- an alliance that could "end up exerting considerable influence over the world gas market."
Putin and Aliyev met for talks that included attempts to establish their respective sectors of the Caspian.
The security architecture in the southern Caucasus can be reshaped in two ways, Torbakov suggests. Russia can either step up its efforts in settling regional conflicts, or Azerbaijan and Georgia could invite NATO countries, including Turkey, to set up military bases on their territory. For now, says Torbakov, "Baku is intent on keeping its options open. This may portend more tough bargaining over the Caspian Sea's division and other issues."
A "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" editorial discusses the attitudes of the French and Germans toward European Union enlargement. It quotes German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer as comparing diplomacy to a restaurant: It is not a question of how meals are prepared, but whether the food meets with general satisfaction when it is served. The same applies to politics: "Quarrels do not matter, more important is the result," he says, referring to EU enlargement.
At a dinner in Potsdam, Germany on 4 February for German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and French President Jacques Chirac, "banal pronouncements" were all that resulted, says the editorial. They declared their resolve to definitely enlarge and discussed social issues, while stating that cost should not exceed the amount agreed upon.
But they gave no answers as to how enlargement should actually be implemented. The Germans have plenty of economic worries in their own country, and the French have to keep an eye on voter opinion ahead of elections.
Before the enlargement meal is ready, the commentary concludes, a considerable amount of crockery will need to be broken in the diplomatic kitchen.
In France's daily "Le Monde," Laurent Zecchini says the trans-Atlantic link between the United States and the European Union "is threatened with a double crisis. The first is a crisis of means," citing the great disparity between U.S. and European defense budgets. An announcement by U.S. President Bush on 4 February that the U.S. will increase its defense budget by 15 percent to $379 billion threatens to increase the technological gap between Europe and the U.S., and it is unclear how the Europeans could ever fill it, says Zecchini.
Europe spends "insufficiently" for its defense, he says, and thus risks not being a credible partner. "The second crisis is conceptual and political," Zecchini writes. The United States has made it clear that it does not presume to need an international mandate to bring its antiterrorism campaign to other countries -- an assumption which troubles the Europeans.
Zecchini says the international security conference in early February in Munich "clearly showed the extent of the divergences between the Americans and the Europeans on the strategy assigned for the international coalition against terrorism."
(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba contributed to this report.)