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Western Press Review: U.S-Iran Relations, Milosevic, Russia's Geostrategic Shift

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 14 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Commentary and analysis in the Western press today discusses a variety of issues, including the trial of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, now in its third day; U.S.-Iranian relations; the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan; and recent shifts in Russia's geopolitical strategy. Other topics include improving relations between Greece and Turkey, and how the 11 September attacks on the U.S. have made the world less prone to traditional international conflicts.


An editorial in "The Washington Times" looks at the Serbian reaction to the trial of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, which began on 12 February at The Hague international war crimes tribunal. The paper says that when Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic extradited Milosevic to the court, many Serbs "felt betrayed."

The editorial adds that now, "many are skeptical of some of the 300 witnesses who will provide evidence in the trial. They view the Serbian officers who testify as turncoats who will do anything to protect themselves, and they will likely view any evidence as propaganda. Even the new president of Yugoslavia, Vojislav Kostunica, tried to prevent the dictator from being handed over and has denied chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte access to military records. Serbs want their former leader tried at home rather than in The Hague court, which they view as a tribunal controlled by the oppressive West."

But the paper says that these same Serbs "are doing little to show that their judicial system at home is up to the job" of trying Milosevic. The editorial concludes that Yugoslavia "can either see Milosevic's trial as another opportunity to cry victim or as a reminder to reform its own justice system. They can either choose the past or the future," it says.


An editorial in the "Chicago Tribune" looks at relations between the U.S. and Iran following U.S. President George W. Bush's "axis of evil" speech last month (29 January) citing Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as potential global threats. The editorial says the U.S. should continue to support Iran's attempts at reform, but that the country still has a long way to go.

"Iran has shown some promise, embodied in the reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, who promotes the idea of detente with the U.S. and other nations. [The] vast majority of people there are voting for reformers and clamoring for real democracy. But power in the country remains in the hands of the clerics, who control the security, intelligence, and judicial systems. Iran is still led by a harsh regime."

The "Tribune" editorial goes on to say that Bush's denouncement of Iran "may have complicated longtime U.S. diplomatic efforts to support the rise of reformers in Iran against [the] hard-line mullahs [and] their tyrannical theocracy." Bush's "axis of evil" assertion has prompted a backlash and has been resoundingly rejected even by many of Iran's reformists. But the editorial says even so, "the door is open to improved relations, once the people of Iran succeed in their desire for a more open and tolerant society."


In "The Washington Post," columnist Jim Hoagland discusses several aspects of the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan, including increasing tensions between the Pentagon and the press. He says that "several recent sharp exchanges" have occurred between reporters and Pentagon spokespeople "over increasingly opaque and unhelpful renditions of increasingly murky events in Afghanistan. Gears are changing there as the immediate dangers of combat recede." U.S. soldiers and spies "now operate in situations more gray than black or white," he says, and have made "mistakes of judgment or are forced into an unforgiving choice about killing people whose identities they do not have time to verify."

Hoagland notes that the Pentagon refused at its 11 February briefing "to accept any likelihood that U.S. troops beat 27 blameless Afghan civilians, helped the CIA kill three scrap-metal scavengers, [or] threatened the life of a 'Washington Post' reporter looking into that incident," as has been alleged. "These incidents were treated as fables," Hoagland writes, noting that "some journalists left the briefing muttering in amazement, others in anger."

Hoagland remarks that much of this tension is natural: "Mistakes happen in wartime. Bureaucracies try to avoid discussing them." But he says "there is no reason honest acknowledgment of error should cloud the pursuit of [Osama] bin Laden or others. The balance of rights and of risks is a constant and proper subject of debate in a free society, even in times of war."


An editorial in the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" discusses improving relations between Cyprus and Turkey. A decision was reached between the two countries to attempt to settle their common disputes when Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou met Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem at the international conference of foreign ministers from the European Union and the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) in Istanbul yesterday.

Of course, this agreement was not reached without some EU pressure, says the paper. Turkey is currently playing the role of mediator between Europe and the Islamic world, and is receiving praise for this new foreign policy. But the paper says Turkey is also having to pay a price for this new role.

The editorial remarks that there are still many obstacles to finding a real solution to the Cyprus issue. But "a little Byzantine cunning can be quite useful," it says. "This will come in handy for both the Greeks and the Turks if the agreed dialogue concerning all points of contention in the Aegean Sea is to lead to genuine results."


In the "International Herald Tribune," staff writer Philip Gordon says that President Vladimir Putin is leading Russia in a major geostrategic policy shift. He writes that Putin "has ended centuries of Russian wavering between East and West and made a strategic choice that the country's future lies unequivocally in Europe. The path to that goal, [Putin] understands, is restoration of the Russian economy, which is possible only with Western cooperation."

Gordon says the Russian president has subordinated Russia's former foreign policy aspirations "to the need to get along with the West...." This move results "partly from a conviction that Russia belongs in Europe for cultural and historical reasons. But it is even more a product of the recognition that Russia has little choice, at least for now," says Gordon.

"The new Putin strategy makes sense. Maybe in 10 or 15 years, when the economy is back in working order, Russia can again begin to challenge America's global leadership and start jockeying for geopolitical influence in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere. For now, the priorities are at home -- to improve the lot of the population, promote foreign investment, reduce the costs of foreign policy, and seek the regional stability necessary for economic growth."


In a joint contribution to the "International Herald Tribune," Achilles Zaluar and Richard Zeckhauser of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University say the September attacks on New York and Washington have created "dramatic shifts in understanding" around the world. These changes, say the authors, "have made conflicts between nations less likely," for two reasons.

First, they say, "it is now recognized that terrorist groups have the potential to undermine any nation, including those that have hosted or supported them. Second, much as the devastating power of nuclear weapons deterred U.S.-Soviet military adventures during the Cold War, the potential spread of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons to subnational groups or a few rogue nations is now seen as a severe danger to all."

The new common enemy of a global terrorist network and the common threat that it represents has generated a strong convergence of interests among nations, "even among traditional adversaries. Armed conflicts between Russia or China and the United States now seem more remote," say the authors. They add that "[even] some long-festering regional conflicts -- the Middle East, Kashmir -- may have greater potential to be finally solved, despite posing greater short-run dangers."


In France's daily "Liberation," staff writer Pascal Riche writes from Washington, "For two days, the Pentagon has been on the defensive. The American press, until now [having been] understanding of incidences of [so-called] 'collateral damage' in Afghanistan, is very critical." Riche notes that both "The Washington Post" and "The New York Times" have accused the government of not seriously inquiring into civilians killed accidentally and of not disciplining those responsible.

Riche goes on to discuss three incidents that have received the most attention. One is a 23 January raid on Hazar Qadam, in which between 15 and 21 men were killed and another 27 held prisoner by U.S. forces for 16 days, during which time they claim to have been beaten. Another episode involved the deaths of three men accidentally targeted by a missile in a CIA operation, and the subsequent threatening of a reporter from "The Washington Post" who attempted to investigate the incident.

Riche notes that U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced that investigations had been launched into the incidents, but that the CIA would be carrying out its own investigation into the incident involving its operation. Riche remarks that "it is very rare that the defense secretary comments on the operations of that agency, which acts in the most complete opacity."


A commentary in Britain's "The Guardian" by columnist Hugo Young says that the trial of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic must not obscure the role that the West played in allowing him to remain in power. He says that if Milosevic had not made the mistake "of going into Kosovo, at a time when American and European leaders were finally geared for action against him, there's every chance that the crimes for which he is being indicted [would] remain untried. He himself might even still be in power, courted by some of the very countries now putting him on trial," writes Young.

Young suggests that the righteous indignation one finds in the West toward Milosevic does not accurately reflect Western history in the Balkans. He says Britain's policy from 1991 to 1995 was to deny that Milosevic and his Serbs were any worse than any other side in the "Balkan bloodbaths" -- and because Milosevic "was someone they could 'deal' with, [he] was better, worth protecting." What followed was a policy of "appeasing" Milosevic, says Young, while America also spent four years trying to deal with him.

"There is something sick about the veiling of history that is going on," Young writes. "However guilty Milosevic is found, the political narrative throws up its own culprits, whose apologias [serve] mainly to remind one that courtrooms do not always deliver a true judgment of history."

(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba contributed to this report.)