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Western Press Review: Debate And Diplomacy Intensify On Iraq, Iranian Reform, And The Earth Summit

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 5 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentary today is dominated by the debate over a possible U.S.-led military operation in Iraq, as the U.S. president begins a diplomatic round to argue his case for why military action is necessary. George W. Bush is set to meet with British Prime Minister Tony Blair later on 7 September and to speak at the United Nations in the days following. Other commentary focuses on the breach in trans-Atlantic relations, also highlighted by the Iraq debate, Iran's efforts at reform, and the Earth Summit, which ended yesterday in Johannesburg, South Africa.


In the "Financial Times," columnist Philip Stevens says trans-Atlantic differences on issues such as a potential attack on Iraq or Mideast diplomacy "are symptoms rather than cause. Behind them lies a collision of mindsets."

After the attacks of 11 September, the U.S. approach to the rest of the world became "the single-minded projection of U.S. power." But Europe believes that military strength alone "cannot deliver security." Europe, he says, relies on "soft power. The multilateral rules and institutions that Washington fears will hamper its war on terrorism are, to its allies, the best way to guarantee lasting security. The European answer to the chaos of failed states is nation building; the U.S. instinct is simply to root out terrorists."

"To many Americans," he says, "European hesitations smack of appeasement." Talk of "weapons inspectors and of resolutions at the United Nations sound like excuses for weakness." But for Europe, "peace is a process. The continent's historical experience is that wars rarely deliver security."

But Stevens emphasizes that "common interests remain. The shared values of liberal democracy are buttressed by mutual self-interest in economics and trade." Europeans will, perhaps, one day "acknowledge that their multilateralism has been built on a U.S. security guarantee. [The] soft power of diplomacy and persuasion needs military strength behind it," he says. And Americans should realize "that security depends on more than cruise missiles." Unilateralism, he says, "will deliver only Pyrrhic victories."


An editorial in "The Independent" discusses the anticipated 7 September meeting between U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair at Camp David. The paper calls the meeting an "informal mini-summit," but says it is significant that the two leaders are meeting face to face. "It says much about the panicky mood in both capitals and suggests a recognition by both leaders that rumor and conjecture about Iraq are on the point of running out of control."

Blair "must hope to take from the meeting a clear idea of U.S. intentions" in Iraq, the editorial says. But Bush also needs this meeting, says the paper. He "has watched his cabinet tear itself apart and the international coalition that raced to his aid after 11 September desert him" over the Iraq issue. Bush "needs to show America that he does not stand alone."

Blair now has "a rare opportunity" to present the European and British perspectives, and to ask something in return for his support. The paper says asking for U.S. restraint "would be a start, and [for] a second chance for diplomacy" before any military action.


The "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" says the debate over the potential launch of an attack against Iraq is "a war of credibility." The paper says there is a lack of hard facts, notably, the nature of the threat from Iraq. Moreover, Europe is far from united in its estimation of the consequences of a military attack.

Whereas U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld envisions the result of Saddam Hussein's demise as heralding "a golden age of democracy in the Middle East," Europeans, and German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer in particular, predict turmoil and chaos in that region of the world, a disintegration of the international coalition to combat international terrorism, and imagines that America would leave Europe with a mess.

In short, says the "FAZ," Germany's opposition to intervention in Iraq is becoming less of an internal political issue and is turning into a general and widespread mistrust of U.S. policy.


An editorial in "The Irish Times" calls the UN Summit on Sustainable Development that concluded yesterday in Johannesburg, South Africa, the "Summit of Lost Opportunity." It says there was "a palpable sense of anger among delegates in the plenary hall and observers in the public gallery over the obstructive role" played by the U.S. and the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) during the summit. The "awesomely powerful" U.S.-OPEC lobby "was not prepared to accept a realistic target to boost renewable energy to 10 percent of the world market by 2010, 2015 -- or any other year."

The summit ultimately produced only two targets with timetables attached: "one on extending basic sanitation to at least half of those [people] without it by 2015, and the other to protect fish stocks, at least in designated areas, by 2012." Some good may also come of the "vague commitments on corporate accountability, trade and the environment, agricultural subsidies, and ecosystem management."

But "The Irish Times" says the meeting was most useful "for the way it reinforced the determination of nongovernmental experts and campaigning groups to press ahead with their activities and improve their networks. What was missing in Johannesburg was the political will to take the strong, concerted action so urgently required to save the planet."


An editorial in the "Chicago Tribune" says reformist Iranian President Mohammad Khatami is once again challenging the fundamentalist clerics that hold most of the power in Iran. Last week he declared that he would introduce legislation to restore the full powers of the presidency "to act as head of state and protect citizen's rights." Although Khatami was twice elected on promises to liberalize the economy and protect civil liberties, he "has found himself thwarted at every turn by the Guardian Council, a panel of religious leaders."

The U.S. administration, however, no longer believes this. In July, Bush administration officials announced they were abandoning support for Khatami, "preferring to make direct appeals to democracy supporters among the Iranian people. The Bush team argues that Khatami has had five years to deliver real reform and has failed."

The "Tribune" calls the Bush administration's decision "woefully shortsighted. It needlessly jeopardizes the strongest opportunity for better relations with Iran. To abandon Khatami, who has attempted to foster a democratic climate in Iran even in the shadow of theocratic repression, is to abandon democracy supporters among the Iranian people."

Such dramatic social and political change in Iran "is almost certain to be a long and frustrating process," the paper says. "Imperfect as he may be, Khatami still deserves U.S. support."


An editorial in "The New York Times" welcomes recent indications from the U.S. administration that it will seek congressional approval before taking any military action against Iraq, and that President George W. Bush plans to state his case on Iraq at the United Nations next week. But the paper says Bush "left unaddressed most of the hard questions about Iraq, including the pivotal issue of why Baghdad supersedes all other foreign threats, why it so urgently requires American intervention and the potential sacrifice of American and Iraqi lives."

Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld have failed to spell out "the precise nature of the Iraqi threat or why 'regime change' is mandatory now when it was not deemed necessary only a year or two ago." The editorial adds: "If Washington knows that Mr. Hussein is on the brink of developing nuclear weapons, Mr. Bush should provide evidence. If the president believes Mr. Hussein is in league with Al-Qaeda and other terror groups, he must describe the links."

"The New York Times" says U.S. President Bush's "new steps toward consultation are welcome, but they do not substitute for a comprehensible Iraq policy, much less make the case for war."


An item in Belgium's "Le Soir" by Veronique Kiesel discusses two recent studies on differences in U.S. and European public opinion. Conducted by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations and the German Marshall Fund of the United States, the polls questioned respondents on both sides of the Atlantic. On the question of whether U.S. foreign policy was at least partly to blame for the 11 September attacks, 55 percent of Europeans responded yes.

Twenty-six percent of Europeans do not think the U.S. should invade Iraq, as opposed to only 13 percent of Americans. But when asked whether the U.S. should invade only with support from the UN and allies, 60 percent of Europeans and 65 percent of Americans agreed.

Opinions diverge more regarding the war on terrorism. Ninety-one percent of Europeans believe aid to developing countries could play a positive role in this effort, while only 78 percent of Americans think so. Kiesel says the ratios are reversed when military action is involved: 84 percent of Americans are in favor of sending ground troops to fight terrorists, as opposed to Europe's 69 percent.

The studies' organizers state that their results indicate more similarities than differences exist between Europe and the U.S. But Kiesel says this conclusion "is itself symptomatic of the American willingness to feel -- at all costs -- that the rest of the world, including Europe, are on the same wavelength as the United States."


A contribution to Britain's "The Guardian" by former British cabinet member Mo Mowlam says the Bush administration seems determined to launch an offensive against Iraq. But she says surely the U.S. is aware of the risks involved: "They must be aware of the fear in Egypt and Saudi Arabia that a war against Iraq could unleash revolutions, disposing of pro-Western governments, and replacing them with populist anti-American Islamist fundamentalist regimes." She recalls the Islamic revolution in Iran, in which an uprising deposed the pro-American Shah.

For the U.S., Saudi Arabia is the key country in the region due to its vast oil reserves. But since 11 September, "it has become increasingly apparent to the U.S. administration that the Saudi regime is vulnerable." The Americans know they could not thwart a possible revolution by Saudi Wahhabi fundamentalists. The U.S. "must therefore hope that they can control the Saudi oil fields, if not the government. And what better way to do that than to have a large military force in the field at the time of such disruption?" she asks.

"This whole affair has nothing to do with a threat from Iraq -- there isn't one," she says. And it "has nothing to do with the war against terrorism or with morality." Saddam Hussein is merely "the distraction for the sleight of hand to protect the West's supply of oil."

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