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Western Press Review: The U.S., Saudi Arabia, And Iraq And The EU's 'Messy Backyard'

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 7 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Analysis and commentary in the Western media today looks at the debate over a potential U.S. military campaign in Iraq, an "explosive" briefing at the U.S. Pentagon recommending a firmer stance toward Saudi Arabia for its alleged terrorist links, the problems for EU expansion posed by Europe's "backyard," talking peace in Kosovo, and the ongoing violence in the Middle East.


In the current (12 August) edition of "Newsweek" magazine, Christian Caryl looks at some of the difficulties arising from the EU's anticipated "great leap Eastward." When the EU becomes neighbors with countries such as Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad -- what Caryl calls Europe's "messy backyard" -- the question will become how to deal with once-distant troubles that are now, suddenly, on the EU's doorstep?

Belarus's autocratic leadership and impoverished population "is just the start," he says. Russia's Kaliningrad, soon to be completely encircled by EU nations, is a "haven for smugglers," with "sky-high levels of HIV infection and AIDS." Containing the spread of these elements to a borderless EU is a major concern. Caryl says a "strategically vital" but "politically unstable and deeply corrupt" Ukraine poses its own set of problems, while Moldova languishes as the poorest country in Europe.

Brussels has been slow to react to these threats to stability and security on its outskirts. The EU has generally responded by helping candidate countries equip their borders with better patrols, and pushing for common strategies on dealing with organized crime. But the larger challenges, says Caryl, will be "dealing with countries that have pushed themselves into isolation with questionable policies." Caryl concludes, "Europe, say hello to the Brave New World."


An item in "The Washington Post" by staff writer Thomas Ricks discusses a 10 July briefing to the Defense Policy Board, policy advisers to the U.S. Pentagon. The briefing by Rand Corporation analyst Laurent Murawiec suggested U.S. officials give Saudi Arabia an ultimatum to stop its support for terrorist groups "or face seizure of its oil fields and its financial assets invested in the United States." The briefing further stated that Saudi Arabia was the "prime mover" in the Middle East and a "dangerous opponent" to the United States due to its support for radical Islamic movements.

Calling the briefing "explosive," Ricks says U.S. officials immediately distanced themselves from the report, saying it did not reflect administration policy. The U.S. administration continues to view Riyadh as "a major ally" in the region.

Yet Ricks says the report does represent a point of view that has "growing currency" within the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush. Ricks quotes an unnamed administration official as saying there is a growing realization within the U.S. government that Riyadh poses a problem. The report also linked a possible "regime change" in Iraq to U.S. policy on Saudi Arabia. If a U.S.-friendly government controlled Iraqi oil fields, the thinking goes, the U.S. would be less dependent on Saudi oil and thus more willing to confront Riyadh over its alleged terrorist links.


In the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung," columnist Peter Muench says the U.S. is moving closer to rejecting Saudi Arabia as a "false friend." The idea has now been floated within the U.S. administration that Saudi Arabia is a terrorist base where Islamic fundamentalists are supplied with money, fighters, and ideological weapons. And so the suggestion has been raised that Washington should contemplate giving Riyadh an ultimatum: either terminate support for terrorism or the U.S. may consider occupying Saudi oil fields.

"Suddenly," says Muench, "many people in America seem to have woken up to the fact that the U.S. has been involved, politically and economically, with a dangerous partner. And on the other hand, the anger against America is mounting in Riyadh." The commentary adds that in fact, "Never has the 60-year-long cultivated friendship been so in jeopardy as today."

Riyadh is categorically opposed to a U.S. intervention in Iraq and therefore refuses to provide for the use of military bases. Moreover, the royal house is also taking into consideration the popular outcry against the U.S. in the event of an American attack on its neighbor.

Muench says that in attacking Iraq, the U.S. may be simultaneously defeating the rogue threat in Baghdad and turning its back on erstwhile ally Saudi Arabia. But there is still the open question: what will become of Saudi Arabia afterward? Should the royal house collapse, the radical Islamists would most likely take power, Muench says. "And not even the hawks in Washington would like to see another Afghanistan in the center of the Middle East crisis zone."


A contribution to the "International Herald Tribune" by former UN envoy to the Balkans Carl Bildt says the status of Kosovo must be decided before a lasting peace can be established. He says the "internal tasks of establishing standards" in Kosovo are complicated by the area's uncertain status. There is also the danger that this situation will "generate uncertainty from Bosnia to Macedonia."

Bildt says as difficult as these issues are, they will become even more difficult the longer they are neglected. He says with a resolution due within a couple of years, "it is high time for the European Union, the United States, and Russia to sit down and discuss where to go. At the end of the day, the issue rests with the UN Security Council."

Ultimately, he says, there must be "a rapprochement between Belgrade and Pristina. Any durable peace has to meet the minimum demands of both, and is unlikely to meet the maximum demands of either. But neither the initial rapprochement nor the eventual peace agreement can be achieved without a clear international facilitation based on a clear international policy."


A "Jane's Foreign Report" this week looks at tensions between the U.S. and Russia over Russia's sale of nuclear-energy technology to Iran. The U.S. views this as a security threat, arguing it brings Iran closer to developing nuclear weapons.

But "Jane's" says U.S. experts "have never offered proof that Iran has a nuclear-weapons program." Iran is a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Bushehr plant Russia is helping Iran build "is under full International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards. [Iran's] record in this regard looks perfectly acceptable, except to Israel and the U.S."

"Jane's" says the sites for Iran's prospective plants were selected decades ago, "when Iran was being encouraged to buy nuclear plants by the West." Moreover, Russia has the greatest interest in ensuring Iran does not acquire nuclear weapons, and the VVer pressurized-water-reactor plants Iran is building "are of no use for this purpose." Russia has even arranged to supply the fuel and then collect the spent fuel. Iran will thus "have no need to build facilities to enrich uranium or reprocess used fuel -- the only routes to acquiring weapons-grade nuclear material."

"Jane's" concludes that Washington should "assume with good grace" that Russia's President Vladimir Putin and his successors "are serious people who mean what they say, and leave this relationship with Iran in their hands."


The ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine is the subject of an editorial in the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung." The paper says although Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has not kept his promise to assure peace and security, he can consider the isolation of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat a partial victory. Arafat has vanished from the public eye, says the paper, and he even fears the anger of his own people.

The talks between Israel's Defense Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer and Palestinian Interior Minister Abdel Rasak Jechia are proof of yet another move to dislodge Arafat. In this respect, the editorial says, the results of the meeting are not as important as the fact that the Palestinians accepted the invitation in spite of Israel's failure to comply with Arafat's demand for the Israeli army to retreat from the occupied territories. The "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" says Sharon's underlying motive is to preserve his own coalition, not to come to an agreement with the Palestinians. The paper concludes that a withdrawal from Palestinian lands and an end to the Intifada is still far off.


In "The Wall Street Journal Europe," former U.S. Ambassador to Morocco Marc Ginsberg says the latest violent incidents in the Middle East are once again highlighting the plight "of millions of destitute Palestinians living in squalid refugee camps." He says while many Arab nations "claim to be outraged by the Palestinians' plight, [in] reality they have contributed little to the welfare of the Palestinian people" displaced by the conflict.

Ginsberg says the "humanitarian tragedy of the Palestinian refugees in countries like Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan, and the unrealistic hope that their 'right of return' to Israel will be realized, is one of the most vexing problems in the Arab-Israeli conflict." There are 3.7 million Palestinian refugees living in "squalid" refugee camps throughout the Middle East. The rest live in areas of the West Bank and Gaza in circumstances that are not always much better than in the camps. Ginsberg notes that except for Jordan, no Arab state has granted the refugees citizenship. Instead, they "remain stateless dependents of the UN who rely upon humanitarian programs administered principally by the UN Relief Works Agency."


In a contribution to Britain's "Financial Times," former Undersecretary for the British Ministry of Defense Michael Quinlan says while Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein does pose a possible threat, a U.S. assault on his regime would be "an unnecessary and precarious gamble." Quinlan says Saddam Hussein "almost certainly has chemical and biological weapons and would like to get nuclear ones, in breach of United Nations Security Council edict." But starting a war "is an immensely grave step and we must still ask whether it would be wise, and right, to take it."

Quinlan says preemptive action is sometimes warranted, but the threat in question must be "probable as well as severe." He says the probability of Iraq using biological or chemical weapons, or transferring them to terrorists, does not seem to meet this criteria. Saddam Hussein "has had such weapons for 20 years, [and] has not used them since 1988, not even amid the 1991 Gulf War. Why should the international containment that has held for more than a decade now be thought likely to break down?" Quinlan asks. He says containment might no longer work if Hussein's survival were threatened -- "but to preempt the use of biological or chemical weapons by adopting the one course of action most apt to provoke it seems bizarre."


In the French-language daily "Liberation," staff writer Pascal Riche says the question of whether Saudia Arabia is actually an adversary of the U.S. rather than an ally is being seriously discussed in the wake of the 10 July report advising the U.S. to threaten the seizure of Saudi oil fields and assets if Saudi Arabia does not stop funding terrorist groups.

Riche says the idea that Saudi Arabia is a hub of terrorist funding and activity is becoming more fashionable within the hawkish circles of the Bush administration, particularly those of Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. According to some proponents of an Iraq offensive, a U.S.-friendly government in Baghdad would not only end the Iraqi threat to security but would lessen the Saudi influence on the oil market. Nevertheless, Riche notes that Defense Secretary Rumsfeld made it very clear that the report did not reflect the dominant views of the Bush administration.


An editorial in Britain's "The Independent" says "a clear division has emerged" between those who believe the main issue in Iraq is its refusal to submit to UN arms inspections and "those who regard it as the Iraqi leader himself. For the first group, the overriding objective is to get UN inspectors back into Iraq on the terms the UN Security Council originally stipulated: that they could go anywhere and search anything. If Iraq agrees to this, the current quarrel should essentially be over."

But the second group has now made clear that getting inspectors back into Iraq is "either secondary or immaterial" to their ultimate goal. They believe the danger posed by Iraq's weapons "will be eliminated only when the current regime changes." The U.S. administration belongs to the latter group, and has now placed "regime change" atop its list of priorities. Thus, the U.S. sees Baghdad's recent offer of renewing talks with the UN over inspections as "playing for time" amid U.S. threats of military action.

The paper notes that "European governments, almost without exception, have called for the talking to resume on the grounds that arms inspections are the first step towards disarming Iraq." It says the prospect "that bombs could start to fall while talks are still being broached [makes] a mockery of justice."