Prague, 19 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Western media commentators today look at the mid-March election of a center-right government in Portugal as Europe continues its shift to the political right; increasing the presence of coalition forces in Afghanistan; political divisions in Yugoslavia; and the presidential campaign in France. How pipeline politics is tainting the American Afghan campaign and whether the U.S. is being "panicked" into a war with Iraq are also addressed, as are ongoing events in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE ZEITUNG:
The results of the 17 March elections in Portugal have made Lisbon the latest European capital to host a conservative government, in what some view as a European shift to the right. But in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," columnist Walter Haubrich suggests that to view the Social Democrats' victory as merely another step in the rightward European shift would be an oversimplification.
He says the reasons for the Socialist Party's defeat "were chiefly domestic, and include a severe decline in economic growth, failure to implement necessary reforms in recent years, and the precipitate resignation of Prime Minister Antonio Guterres." But he adds: "That said, the poll in Portugal is certainly further confirmation that in times of economic crisis many European voters have more confidence in liberal-conservative parties than in Social Democrats."
Haubrich goes on to say that what Portugal needs now is "bold administrative reform," as well as economic inducement. He says "lax and slipshod administration, massive projects for which financing could hardly be found, and shrinking productivity have cost Portugal confidence abroad -- and hence investment. It is up to the future president to restore faith in the country and make the Portuguese believe once more in their own potential for achievement."
An editorial in the British "Financial Times" discusses the announcement this week that more troops will be deployed to bolster antiterrorism coalition forces in Afghanistan. The paper welcomes this decision, for it says, "The deployment of additional forces is necessary to bolster the interim regime of Hamid Karzai and secure peace in Afghanistan."
But the paper goes on to warn that strengthening the coalition presence in Afghanistan brings with it two dangers. One is that ever more troops will be sucked into the Afghan quagmire in a country where "traditional tribal rivalries overlie political divisions between pro- and anti-Taliban forces. A clear statement of the coalition's role in the country is needed" in order to avoid an open-ended deployment with no end in sight, it says.
The paper says the second danger "relates to political and military overstretch. Rather than allowing its efforts to be diffused in too many theaters of war, the coalition must secure the victory it has won in Afghanistan and continue the hunt for [Osama] bin Laden supporters."
Creating a national Afghan army and police force should be a priority, the paper says. For "unless Afghans are helped to build a nation and defend it, the country could again lapse into further chaos and destruction and provide a new base for international terrorism."
In Britain's "Daily Telegraph," author Robert Harris, a historian of gas and germ warfare, says the U.S. may be risking being "panicked" into a war with Iraq. Harris says that for now, "there is little evidence" that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is close to developing nuclear weapons.
But Harris notes that Saddam had "immense" chemical and biological weapons, or CBWs, at the time of the 1991 Gulf War. The likeliest reason that he did not use them is that he feared massive, even nuclear, retaliation. For its part, Harris says the reason the U.S. did not unseat Saddam then was its fear that the Iraqi leader -- "with his back to the wall and with nothing to lose" -- would have used his CBW arsenal against Israel and coalition forces.
Harris suggests that the best way to make sure Saddam does not use his CBW armory "is to leave him responsible for it, whereas the surest way to ensure those gases and toxins are actually spread throughout the world is to attack him."
Harris says the U.S. is considering acting pre-emptively against states that represent a perceived threat. In the process, he writes, the U.S. risks fracturing the united international front against Al-Qaeda, splitting public opinion and making bioterrorism more likely.
"All in all," Harris concludes, "a strange way to go about making the world a safer place."
A Stratfor commentary looks at internal power struggles in Yugoslavia in the wake of recent political developments. Stratfor notes that President Vojislav Kostunica's party requested the resignation of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic over allegations that one of his deputy prime ministers, Momcilo Perisic, is a U.S. spy.
Kostunica himself threatened to resign yesterday if Serbia and Montenegro fail to ratify the EU-brokered federation plan signed in March, which effectively dissolves the Yugoslav federation and creates Serbia and Montenegro.
Stratfor says these events add momentum to the ongoing power struggle between Kostunica and Djindjic. Djindjic is a "Western darling, who has delivered on a raft of reform and democratization promises," writes Stratfor. But the West is being forced to take Kostunica's side on the federation issue, placing the EU in the "awkward position" of needing to pressure Djindjic on behalf of Kostunica to preserve the federal state. The commentary says this "places the EU on the same side as a colorful cast of ultranationalists [and] against the pro-democracy and pro-reform groups the union has traditionally backed."
But the EU "is fearful of creating a Montenegrin state dependent upon Western aid. That explains the U-turn Brussels has done on the issue in recent months," says the commentary. It concludes that with foreign influence "wavering between pro-reform Djindjic and pro-union Kostunica, Yugoslavia/Serbia/Montenegro is in for a period of political strife."
Wieland Schneider, in the Austrian paper "Die Presse," urges the Serbian leadership to take speedy action against the "old guard," which he says is still holding crucial positions within the government. Yugoslavia as such has finally become history, since the latest agreement on 14 March on a new union between Serbia and Montenegro. The name remains "no more than a camouflage for greater Serbian ambitions," which he says still pose a danger nevertheless.
Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's adherents refuse to let go, says Schneider. Now the propaganda is spread via live transmission of Milosevic's trial from The Hague war crimes tribunal. Schneider says this is part of a campaign to do everything possible to hinder justice, which is also undermined somewhat by the ambivalent attitudes of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic and President Vojislav Kostunica. In the past, these statesmen have been closely connected with the secret service in suppressing Croats and Bosnians. Now, Schneider says, it is time to disassociate from "these old friends."
Although it seems unthinkable that there would be a reversion to politics Milosevic-style, the country certainly cannot afford to tolerate any of Milosevic's adherents seeking to sabotage the new state. They can only stamp out all their hopes by dislodging them from power, Schneider concludes.
In a contribution to the "Chicago Tribune," senior editor of "In These Times" Salim Muwakkil says that around the world, "there is a widespread belief that U.S. military deployments in Central Asia are mostly about oil" rather than about a war against terrorism.
Muwakkil cites Ahmed Rashid's book titled "Taliban, Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia," in which Rashid says U.S. oil company Unocal had been negotiating with the Taliban since 1995 to build a pipeline from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan and into Pakistani ports. Muwakkil says Rashid further documents "how the U.S. and Pakistan helped install the Taliban in hopes of bringing stability to the war-ravaged region and making it safer for the pipeline project."
Muwakkil writes that the terrorist acts of 11 September, "though tragic, provided the Bush administration a legitimate reason to invade Afghanistan, oust the recalcitrant Taliban and, coincidentally, smooth the way for the pipeline. To make things even smoother, the U.S. engineered the rise to power of two former Unocal employees: Hamid Karzai, the new interim president of Afghanistan, and Zalmay Khalizad, the Bush administration's Afghanistan envoy."
He notes that another proposed pipeline, from Baku, Azerbaijan, to Ceyhan, Turkey, is represented by the law firm Baker & Botts. James Baker, a former U.S. secretary of state, is its principle attorney.
Muwakkil concludes: "There are many other connections, too numerous to recount here. No wonder the rest of the world is a bit skeptical..."
The "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" discusses the intensive U.S. diplomatic efforts in the Middle East. Heiko Flottau says it is "more than superficially symbolic" that the paths of Vice President Dick Cheney and U.S. special Middle East envoy Anthony Zinni are crossing in Jerusalem.
Cheney arrived from the Arab world, where he sought support for a campaign against Iraq's Saddam Hussein, while Zinni has spent several days trying to broker a cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinians.
"Both the Iraqi and the Palestinian problems are closely connected, of course, at quite different levels," says Flottau. So far, neither mission has been particularly successful, since "whoever intends to rouse Arab sympathies against a dictator such as Saddam Hussein must not just seek to cure merely the symptoms in Palestine."
Only an end to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land can bring peace, says Flottau. In addition, Flottau says the interests of all concerned -- Iraq, Israel, Palestine, the Arabs and Americans -- are interconnected. Israel can only hope for peace when there is a change of regime in Baghdad. But even a successor to Saddam Hussein cannot bring peace, he says, unless the Palestinians receive their own state.
An editorial in the French daily "Le Monde" looks at the heated presidential campaign under way in France, in which Prime Minister Lionel Jospin is challenging incumbent French President Jacques Chirac.
"Le Monde" says the French electorate is not responding positively to the personal insults being hurled about under the pretext of campaigning. Specifically, it notes Jospin's description of his opponent as "old" and "tired" -- comments the daily says Jospin is now paying for.
The paper says the EU economic summit in Barcelona on 15-17 March allowed the two heads of state to return to cooperating, uniting their efforts to defend the public energy sector in the face of what it calls "ultra-liberal dogma." The paper says that, correspondingly, it became even more clear that the politics of the two candidates are actually quite similar.
"Le Monde" says that on matters of security, the two share a desire for strict and more local justice. They both want to give more responsibility to parliament, encourage decentralization, and see the EU develop into a federation of nation-states.
The paper concludes that while there are certainly differences between the platforms of the challengers, these are not numerous enough "to give the sense of a genuine struggle [between] projects or ideas."
THE WASHINGTON TIMES:
In "The Washington Times," syndicated columnist Morton Kondracke looks at U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney's trip through the Middle East, ostensibly to raise support from the Arab world for a potential U.S.-led military operation in Iraq.
Kondracke says Cheney may also have been sent to the region because the U.S. Pentagon and the State Department "are deeply at odds over how and when to launch the anti-Saddam [Hussein] effort. Civilians in the Pentagon believe the Iraqi leader can be toppled largely through sustained precision bombing and with only limited ground forces. The Army and Marine Corps are said to think that several hundred thousand ground troops will be needed. The State Department, with retired General Colin Powell in charge, is said to hold a similar view -- and to oppose an early war."
Kondracke says "it is up to members of Congress to ask hard questions" about what happens next and how is best to get there. He says congressional leaders should not oppose eliminating the threat Iraq poses regarding nuclear and biological weapons, "but they have a responsibility to make sure the administration is going about it in the most efficient way." Congress "should push the administration to justify the effort [as] a means of ensuring that Bush continues to have the American public and other countries behind him," Kondracke concludes.
THE NEW YORK TIMES:
An editorial in "The New York Times" discusses a discovery by the newspaper's reporters of "thousands of pages of documents in the remains of the Afghan camps and buildings of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda." The editorial says these documents provide a "surprising portrait of an army and how it was trained."
"The New York Times" says the discovered documents debunk two myths about the Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters. "One was that the camps were turning out tens of thousands of suicide bombers. In fact, they were training soldiers for a war. The second was that the forces were disorganized.... They were, in reality, quite well-disciplined."
The editorial says, "What is revealed is a fighting force of unexpected scale and sophistication." The volunteers shared a single motivation, it says -- martyrdom for Islam -- and calls their training program "far more coherent and disciplined than previously thought." The paper says military experts "have expressed surprise at the breadth of information-gathering these documents represent, stitching together, as they do, [diverse] tactical elements.... [The] fact that they have been gathered together and shaped into a coherent curriculum reveals a long-term strategic view, as well as an understanding of the minds of the soldiers that curriculum addresses."