Prague, 30 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Commentary in the Western press today addresses North Korea's recent moves toward nuclear brinkmanship with the United States, the U.S. role in the buildup of Iraq's weapons arsenal, and human rights abuses in Chechnya. It also looks at Kenyan elections and the end of the 24-year rule of outgoing President Daniel Arap Moi, and examines the reasons behind the declining global appeal of the McDonald's fast food chain, one of America's most-recognized international brands.
Columnist Peter Preston warns against overreacting to the nuclear threat posed by North Korea in an item in today's edition of Britain's "The Guardian" daily. Nuclear weapons are clearly a danger that must be diminished, he says. But what Preston calls the world's "most worrying nukes" are those belonging to India and to Pakistan, where terrorist leader Osama bin Laden has "some of his best popularity ratings."
"China isn't worried about North Korea," he notes. Russia "is openly scornful" of the dangers posed by Pyongyang. Too much misplaced attention could merely inflate the problem into a crisis, Preston warns. North Korea's "poverty, incapacity, and failure" already serve to contain President Kim Jong-il, as he "seeks to contain a military apparatus bent only on hanging on to what privileges and powers it possesses."
Preston writes, "One fine, distant day, with more trade and more aid, the barriers will come down" from around North Korea. "That is the best kind of regime change. One day the rules about non-proliferation will be automatically observed." But for now, he says, there's nothing to be gained by overreacting.
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL:
An editorial in "The Wall Street Journal" says North Korean President Kim Jong-il's "latest attempts" at nuclear "blackmail" underscore "the dangers of waiting too long to stop any dictator from getting his hands on nuclear weapons." And one thing is now clear, the paper says: Kim is edging closer to nuclear brinkmanship "because his previous threats were met with appeasement."
The editorial blames the administration of former U.S. President Bill Clinton for not insisting that Pyongyang surrender the thousands of spent fuel rods it is now set to reprocess into weapons-grade plutonium at its Yongbyon reactor complex. Moreover, it says, the Clinton administration allowed Pyongyang to build two nuclear reactors in return for freezing its activities at Yongbyon.
"What remains a mystery is why anyone believed a brutal regime that systematically starves its population, diverting desperately needed food aid into sustaining the world's fifth-largest army, would keep its promises." Now, it says, the current U.S. administration of President George W. Bush is beginning to realize that "rewarding bad behavior will only get more bad behavior."
A strategy "of isolation and containment [makes] more sense against impoverished North Korea than it does against oil-rich Iraq," says the paper. "Starved of outside money and fuel, the Kim regime might well crack."
A "Financial Times" editorial discusses the results of weekend elections in Kenya. "Smooth transfers of power are infrequent events in Africa," it says. "For that alone, the outcome of Kenya's presidential and parliamentary elections should be cause for celebration."
What the paper calls "the most genuinely competitive elections in Kenya's history" brought an overwhelming victory for an opposition coalition led by Mwai Kibaki, the former vice president. His victory brings to a close the 24-year presidency of Daniel Arap Moi and an end to the dominance of the Kenya African National Union (KANU), in power since independence in 1963.
But Moi's legacy "will not be easily overcome," says the editorial. Kenya's "once-promising economy has been corroded by pervasive corruption and political patronage." Kibaki and his National Rainbow Coalition will face many challenges. But as a former finance minister, the paper says Kibaki "has the background to lead the economic reforms Kenya desperately needs." He is also "committed to a new constitution that would split powers between the president and a prime minister. This could have significant advantages in limiting personalized power."
The "Financial Times" calls for a "determined attack on systemic graft" in Kenya, a move it says "should help regain the trust of the International Monetary Fund and get aid flowing again. Kenyan voters have made a clear call for change, and Mr. Kibaki needs to act decisively to justify their confidence."
In a guest commentary in Germany's "Die Welt," Ekkehard Maass discusses Russia's military campaign in the breakaway republic of Chechnya, which again made headlines on 27 December when two explosions ripped through the pro-Moscow government building in the Chechen capital, Grozny. The explosions led to the deaths of some 61 people and injured many others.
Russia's military offensive in Chechnya cannot be justified, Maass writes, because it is a form of "state terrorism, which generates terrorists."
Viewing the Chechen campaign within the broader context of human rights issues throughout Central and Eastern Europe, Maass says in all post-Soviet states except the Baltic countries, old-fashioned means prevail and undemocratic regimes flourish, whether in Belarus, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, or Russia. Moreover, international organizations "have failed in their task to guarantee human rights" throughout the region.
And Western policies have helped the "old-new Soviet secret service" to regain power, says Maass. German politicians on both the left and the right have supported Russian President Vladimir Putin's policies, which Maass describes as "two-faced" in that they welcome foreign investment while supporting the old Soviet national anthem, the red flag, press censorship, interference in court cases, and a war against the civilian population in Chechnya.
Maass concludes, "According to Russian human rights advocates, Russia is no longer on the edge of a new dictatorial society -- it is already entrenched in one."
THE NEW YORK TIMES:
An editorial in "The New York Times" today discusses some of the possible reasons behind the declining global popularity of the U.S. fast-food giant McDonald's. The McDonald's chain "is not the first of America's mighty global brands to fall on hard times," it says. But there is more going on behind its declining appeal than merely "changing habits, an economic slowdown, and an anti-American backlash," says the paper. At work is also the "fundamental human ambivalence toward the ubiquitous."
By "endlessly cloning" an efficient model of a fast-food hamburger joint, McDonald's became "an icon of America's assembly-line answer to a basic human need." Consumers at first welcomed the standardization of the product -- and the certainty this provided that it would always taste, smell, feel, and seem the same, whether purchased in New York, Japan, or Moscow. But after a while, the editorial says, McDonald's omnipresence became as "unsettling" as it was comforting. "Fickle consumers turn away, seeking to reassert their individuality." This tendency helps explain the "ongoing fragmentation" of consumer tastes and preferences -- and, perhaps, the decline of once-popular brands.
An editorial in Britain's "The Guardian" discusses the announcement over the weekend by a private U.S.-based group that the first cloned human baby has been born. The paper calls the group "a bizarre American cult," and notes that its claims have yet to be independently verified by scientists. But even if this group fails, the paper says, "others will succeed unless government intervenes."
Over a year ago, U.S. scientists announced they had created the first cloned human embryo, to be used for medical treatment, rather than reproductive purposes. The paper says that medical breakthrough was "a time for rejoicing," as it may eventually offer help for many people suffering from chronic or degenerative diseases.
But "The Guardian" goes on to discuss some of the inherent problems with cloning. Most cloned animals are born with genetic or congenital abnormalities, or develop them later in life. "The birth of just a few badly deformed [human] babies could provoke a public backlash against aLl embryo research, stalling vital medical advances," the paper says. "Cloned babies could also provide the opportunity to pursue dangerous eugenic policies." France and Germany have already suggested the United Nations ban human cloning, and the U.S. has recently indicated that it supports the measure. "It is time it was endorsed by all," the paper says.
THE WASHINGTON POST:
In "The Washington Post," columnist William Raspberry asks a number of questions he says are "lingering" regarding a potential U.S.-led military offensive in Iraq.
"Is America really serious that the war we propose is for the purpose of bringing democracy to the people of Iraq?" he asks. Or is it "hopelessly cynical to imagine that democratization is a much lower priority than controlling Iraqi oil reserves [or] asserting [U.S.] authority in that part of the world?"
Raspberry notes wryly that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein "at least pretends to have a democracy. [U.S.] allies such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait don't even go through the charade" of having elections.
And is the Iraqi leader really "such an imminent threat to the United States as to [justify] unilateral military action against him?" he asks. Is a war "that is likely to cost thousands of innocent Iraqi lives" the only way to remove the threat from Saddam Hussein? And will the effort of effecting "regime change" ultimately "create more havoc than it prevents?"
Or perhaps the proposed war in Iraq is really about fighting international terrorism, Raspberry says. But in that case, he asks, would not "an attack on Baghdad likely [spawn] more anti-American and anti-Israeli terrorism and increase [the] number of terrorists who see [the U.S.] as the international menace?"
THE WASHINGTON POST:
Also in "The Washington Post," staff writer Michael Dobbs discusses the role played by the United States in building up the Iraqi weapons arsenal. Among the justifications cited by the U.S. administration for a war against Iraq are President Saddam Hussein's "use of chemical weapons, nuclear and biological programs, and his contacts with international terrorists." But Dobbs says, "What U.S. officials rarely acknowledge is that these offenses date back to a period when Hussein was seen in Washington as a valued ally."
A 1983 meeting between current U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld -- then a private citizen and special presidential envoy -- and Saddam Hussein took place when Iraq was repeatedly using chemical weapons against Iran, in defiance of international law. The Rumsfeld-Hussein meeting is credited with normalizing U.S.-Iraqi relations at a time when the United States viewed revolutionary Iran, Iraq's traditional enemy, as a greater threat to stability.
U.S.-Iraqi cooperation included "large-scale intelligence sharing, supply of cluster bombs through a Chilean front company, and facilitating Iraq's acquisition of chemical and biological precursors," in what Dobbs calls "a topical example of the underside of U.S. foreign policy." Dobbs says that, apparently, "deals can be struck with dictators, human rights violations sometimes overlooked, and accommodations made with arms proliferators, all on the principle that the 'enemy of my enemy is my friend.'"
An item by Sophie Shihab in France's "Le Monde" daily discusses the reaction of the Chechen leadership to the suicide bombing on 27 December of a pro-Moscow government building in Grozny, the Chechen capital. In a message attributed to Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, he has appealed to his people not to lend credence to Moscow's claims that Chechen separatists are nothing more than terrorist criminals. The Kremlin has exhausted all means in attempting to connect Chechens to international terrorism, he says. The Chechens' task is to not allow this view to gain any credibility. Maskhadov's message further stated that while he could understand the desperation of those driven to this type of bloody self-sacrifice, he could not approve of such actions. Instead, he says, Chechnya should fight for justice through its stamina and its dignity.
A Chechen website (http://www.chechen.org) run by Maskhadov's former spokesman, Mayrbek Vatchagaev, noted that the bombings have brought universal condemnation from world leaders, including Chechnya's own president. But Vatchagaev emphasized that the so-called "tragedy of Grozny" did not begin with the explosions last week, but instead started with the demolition of the 98,000 homes destroyed in Chechnya by Russian bombs. Vatchagaev noted that if Western governments had been quicker to react to the crimes committed in Chechnya, they would have been able to end the war that is still creating fresh victims every day.
(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba contributed to this report.)