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Western Press Review: Using 'Soft Power,' Central Asia, And Can Torture Ever Be Justified?

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 10 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Commentaries in major Western dailies today discuss utilizing so-called soft power in the war on terrorism, the debate over whether torture can ever be justified, the emerging geostrategic importance of Central Asia, the political perils for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ahead of upcoming elections, and Washington's moves toward conciliation in its dealings with North Korea.


The lead article in the current edition of the weekly "The Economist" debates the issue of whether torture can ever be justified. How far should officials be allowed to go in trying to elicit information that might stave off a terrorist attack, perhaps saving thousands of lives? The magazine recalls the "ticking bomb" scenario: a bomb is about to go off, potentially killing thousand of people, and you have reason to believe a prisoner knows where it is. Would you allow the use of torture in an attempt to save thousands of lives?

The magazine says that, when confronted with this hypothetical situation, "Most people, however reluctantly, answer 'yes.'" Nevertheless, torture is officially outlawed in many nations and internationally, and so it should remain, says the weekly. Even if it were allowed in only "the most extreme circumstances, it would be difficult to confine its use to those very rare cases. Any system that allowed torture in tightly controlled situations would risk eroding into wider use. To legalize is to encourage."

The magazine says the prohibition against torture is one of the West's "most powerful taboos," and is "worth preserving, even at heavy cost. [To] stay strong, the liberal democracies need to be certain that they are better then their enemies." Societies that are "sure of their civilized values" must not cross the line of inflicting bodily harm.


In a contribution to the "International Herald Tribune," Joseph Nye of Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government says "soft power" can be a useful tool in periods of conflict, including the war on terrorism. Soft power "is the ability to get what you want by attracting and persuading others to adopt your goals," he writes. In contrast, hard power is the ability to persuade based on one's economic and military influence. Soft power relies on attraction, hard power on coercion.

Nye argues against using propaganda as a persuasive method. "Attraction depends on credibility, something [a] propaganda campaign would clearly lack. On the contrary, by arousing broad suspicions about the credibility of what [a] government says, such a program would squander soft power."

He goes on to say that the U.S. administration has not always taken its allies into consideration in formulating policy, and this can breed ill will. If the United States "defines its national interests in ways congruent with others, and consults with them in formulating policies, it will improve the ratio of admiration to resentment," he says.

Soft power comes "not from military propaganda campaigns but from greater sensitivity to the opinions of others in the formulation of policies."


In a contribution to "The Wall Street Journal Europe," Vladimir Socor of the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies says NATO is now well-positioned to extend its influence over the energy-rich Caspian Basin and throughout Central Asia. The alliance, he says, must devise a strategy securing Western interests in the region, including guaranteeing "direct access to energy resources through West-bound pipelines; West-East trade corridors; and forward bases for allied operations against terrorist groups [and] proliferator states." Socor says these aims run parallel to the interests of these formerly Soviet regional nations in terms of their security and modernization. "Thus," he says, "the basis exists for creating security partnerships between NATO and the region's countries."

But Russia, meanwhile, has been working at undermining the West's influence in the region and has "successfully [monopolized] the transit of Western-extracted Caspian oil and gas." Central Asia, Socor says, "is at center stage of the geopolitical revolution of our time." Western security interests post September 11 2001 have opened a "window of opportunity" for the West to bring this region within its "economic and security orbit." And NATO "should begin by clarifying to its own publics the strategic interests at stake, and assuring the countries in that region that NATO will be there for the long haul."


"Sueddeutsche Zeitung" discusses the recent scandals that have wiped out the comfortable lead held by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon ahead of the country's 28 January elections.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is under police investigation over a $1.5 million loan from a South Africa-based businessman. Moreover, his party is facing charges of underworld involvement and corruption in its internal elections. The paper blames Sharon for using his sons as his closest advisers although they, too, are involved in financial scandals. In spite of warnings from the attorney general not to involve his family in politics, Sharon has often sent his son, Omri, as his personal ambassador to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. In addition, "to the amazement of the White House," he has also taken Omri with him on every official visit to the United States.

Considering that Sharon's ratings in the polls have diminished substantially, he is hardly likely to win an outright majority, says the paper. He will have "to go begging to the Labor Party" to form a coalition. "An alliance is inevitable," since Sharon "has no desire to be involved with the Orthodox and right-wing parties and their particular interests."

Most importantly, however, "a grand coalition is unlikely to solve the Middle East crisis," the paper says, as the Israeli political scene has made clear over the past two years.


In the British-based "The Times," Philip Bobbitt says the United Kingdom and the United States are right to target Iraq's weapons programs. In the past, containment and threatening retaliation was the correct way to deter nations from aggressive action. Preemptive action during the Cold War would have been unwise, he says, as well as illegal. But today, this "strategic and legal paradigm [is] redundant."

He writes: "We misconceive deterrence if we imagine that the overwhelming force of the U.S. will deter [Iraqi] President Saddam Hussein from further aggression. It is Iraq, armed with WMD (weapons of mass destruction), [which] will deter the U.S. from interfering in the Gulf and enable Saddam to press his luck again. That ambition is the only conceivable reason he has resisted for 12 years."

The West "is running a terrible risk if pre-emptive action forces Saddam's back against the wall," Bobbitt writes. But unless the world is "willing to grant [Saddam Hussein] a free hand in the Gulf, his back will be against the wall some day anyway -- but with a vastly increased power to do harm, and while the U.S. will have a significantly diminished capacity to prevent it."


In a guest commentary in the German paper "Die Welt," Martin van Creveld discusses shifting U.S. foreign policy toward North Korea. He says the power that has kept "evil forces at bay" in the past is obviously not sufficient to contain Iraq and North Korea. "The more powerful Washington becomes militarily, the more insecure it seems to feel," he says.

The United States is struggling. It achieved a partial victory against Al-Qaeda terrorists in Afghanistan but failed to capture Osama bin Laden, the main aim. Now the United States wishes to engage in an attack on Iraq. But van Creveld says, "This war has not yet begun, and nobody knows whether and how it will end. Moreover, now there is talk of yet another war against North Korea," a country he describes as "weak, isolated and hungry, whose only weapon is an atomic program used to exert pressure to receive food supplies."

Van Creveld criticizes the U.S. preemptive-strike doctrine and its recent "saber-rattling." In theory, the United States is opposed to proliferation, using the argument that "atomic weapons pose a danger in the hands of everyone else" besides the United States. But van Creveld says, in reality, it is the very threat of U.S. power that is prompting nations to seek out and acquire weapons of mass destruction.


In France's "Le Monde," staff writer Patrick Jarreau says each day brings more indications that the United States will launch a war in Iraq, either with or without United Nations approval. Jarreau cites an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute as saying the United States cannot mobilize troops and equipment as it has in Iraq and then not declare war.

Jarreau notes that earlier this week, on 7 January, U.S. President George W. Bush reiterated that Iraq must be disarmed of all weapons of mass destruction. If the Iraqi leader does not comply, Bush said the United States will lead "a coalition of volunteers" to remove Iraq's weapons and "free" the Iraqi people.

But Bush failed to mention UN involvement in this context, Jarreau remarks. While he says such a "coalition of volunteers" might be formed as the result of a vote by the Security Council and any action might take place in accordance with an international mandate, Jarreau points out that Bush's statement might also hint that United States is prepared to do it alone, should the UN refuse to confront Iraq militarily over its weapons programs.

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