Prague, 29 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Discussion in the Western media today is focused largely on U.S. President George W. Bush's annual State of the Union address yesterday and what it says about the future of U.S. foreign policy, including a potential U.S.-led war with Iraq. Much attention is also devoted to hard-line Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's election victory yesterday and how his re-election will affect the possibilities of achieving peace with the Palestinians.
Other topics discussed include persistent instability in Afghanistan and the conviction yesterday of Kazakh journalist Sergei Duvanov for rape, in what some observers protest was a politically motivated trial on fabricated charges. In the days following his arrest, Duvanov had been due to travel to the United States to discuss his investigation of corruption scandals involving top Kazakh officials.
THE WASHINGTON POST:
An editorial in "The Washington Post" says much of the world anticipated that U.S. President George W. Bush would clarify his policies on Iraq and North Korea in his annual State of the Union speech last night. But, the paper says, Bush "[has] not yet made a concerted effort to [explain] why his administration is preparing to launch an invasion of Iraq that will involve painful costs and considerable risks."
The editorial says Bush "reprised the administration's case against Saddam Hussein but did not expand on it." He again emphasized Iraq's "failure to account for biological and chemical weapons [and] its attempts to block or deceive UN weapons inspectors." But Bush "said little about what the costs of a war might be, or about the commitment the United States would make to a postwar Iraq." Instead, Bush announced that Secretary of State Colin Powell would make a report to the UN Security Council next week (5 February) on Iraq's weapons programs and its connections with terrorist groups.
Similarly, the paper says Bush merely "restated his administration's approach" to North Korea -- another member of his "axis of evil" -- "without making any clearer a policy that has appeared mostly muddled in recent weeks."
NEUE ZUERCHER ZEITUNG:
The Swiss daily "Neue Zuercher Zeitung" discusses U.S. President George W. Bush's annual State of the Union address to the U.S. Congress last night and its import for U.S. foreign policy. The paper points out that Bush was intent on "mediating the feeling that the administration is capable of dealing successfully with both economic problems at home and crises abroad, and told those of right and center political orientation exactly what they wanted to hear."
Typically, the paper notes, Iraq was the last point discussed in the speech. But Bush used this opportunity "to methodically build a war front against Iraq." The paper indicates that Bush is intent on maintaining pressure on Baghdad, and stated that Secretary of State Colin Powell would go to the Security Council next week to present further evidence that the Iraqi leader has not been disarming.
The commentary concludes that the issue of Iraq will continue to make headlines and will likewise determine political discussion in the United States. But the "Neue Zuercher Zeitung" says, "Although the signs of imminent war are ever more clear, it will still take some time before an actual decision is made."
THE NEW YORK TIMES:
An editorial in "The New York Times" says the strong showing of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Likud Party in yesterday's elections was "something of a paradox." Opinion polls show a majority of Israelis favor dismantling Jewish settlements from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, establishing a physical border with the Palestinians and the creation of a Palestinian state -- all of which are policies espoused by Sharon's Labor Party challenger, whereas Sharon follows a more hard-line approach. The paper says the election results thus suggest "that in this time of insecurity, Israelis feel safer under Mr. Sharon's hard-line leadership and see no Palestinian partner with whom to negotiate."
"The New York Times" says if Sharon is serious about making what he has called "painful concessions" for peace, he must move away from his "exclusively military response to Palestinian violence." It says his demand that all suicide-bombing attacks must cease before he pursues peace "gives the terrorists the power."
The editorial goes on to note that while Sharon's Likud Party now holds a majority in the 120-member Israeli parliament, the Knesset, it cannot govern without building a coalition. While the opposition Labor Party was previously part of Sharon's ruling coalition, they have vowed not to join another government led by Sharon. Sharon betrayed his promise to Labor last time "by failing to advance peace and by encouraging the building of new settlement outposts" in the occupied territories.
TYHE NEW YORK TIMES:
Another editorial in "The New York Times" today says U.S. President George W. Bush's much-publicized $670 billion plan to cut taxes, reintroduced last night in his State of the Union address, is "tilted toward the wealthiest Americans and has very little that would stimulate the economy." The paper writes, "At a time when the country may be taking on the expense of an overseas war and is continuing the fight against domestic terrorism, this is radical right-wing economics, dogma Mr. Bush cannot keep peddling if he hopes to unite the country behind his foreign agenda."
The paper adds that the Bush administration still seems "indifferent to the fact that local property and sales taxes are soaring all around the country -- the very levies most likely to discourage consumer spending" that would stimulate the economy.
Regarding his policy on Iraq, the paper says Bush "methodically recounted all the good, though circumstantial, reasons" his administration believes Iraq is not disarming. "But the president has never been as effective in making the case for immediate intervention or for going to war [without] broad international support. While there is a natural fear that Iraq might give arms or biological weapons to terrorists, the administration has not been able to connect those dots, or even to demonstrate that Iraq has a history of aiding terrorism as clear as that of some American allies in the region."
FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE ZEITUNG:
A commentary in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" looks at the situation in Afghanistan where a battle near the Afghan-Pakistani border in the southern province of Kandahar raged through Monday (27 January) night and continued sporadically today north of Spin Boldak, an Afghan trading town about 25 kilometers west of the border. The clash, which erupted after guerrillas were taken by surprise, involved the largest concentration of hostile forces that U.S. and allied troops have detected in the past nine months.
The paper says the situation in Afghanistan is far from stable. "This latest campaign undertaken by the Afghan army along with American forces against the remains of the Taliban -- the most large-scale campaign in the last year -- indicates clearly that the new regime of President Hamid Karzai is facing growing resistance. This should not be underestimated."
The paper continues, "If we are right in thinking that [renegade commander and former Prime Minister] Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and his Hizb-e Islami movement is behind these latest attacks, then Karzai is facing great danger. Unlike Ismail Khan, the warlord of Herat, who would like to set the tone in only his region, Hekmatyar wants all the power. He was in exile in Teheran while the Taliban ruled; now apparently he is somewhere in Afghanistan's border area with Pakistan assembling the dispersed members of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. His accusation that Karzai is 'an American lackey' clearly indicates his attitude."
An item in Belgium's "Le Soir" says all the polls had underestimated the extent of the victory yesterday by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's Likud Party. Sharon is refusing to enter into a coalition with the extreme-right parties, but the left-leaning Labor Party has said it will not join a Sharon-led government.
According to election results, Likud received 400,000 more votes than it did in 1999 elections, while Labor lost 200,000. The secular, center-right Shinoui Party doubled its support base, receiving 350,000 in all. The Belgian daily notes that voter participation yesterday was 68.5 percent -- the lowest in the history of Israeli elections. Only 62 percent of Israel's Arab voters turned out at the polls. And the victorious Likud Party will now govern having received the support of only one-third of Jewish Israeli voters.
LOS ANGELES TIMES:
The "Los Angeles Times" runs a joint commentary by former UN weapons inspector Tim Trevan and Mansoor Ijaz, a former mediator in failed talks between Sudanese officials and the Clinton administration concerning Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda.
The two write, "The case for forcibly removing Saddam Hussein and his Baathist Party from power in Iraq could not be clearer." Regarding the two allegations that matter most in public opinion -- Iraq's suspected development of weapons of mass destruction and its possible links to Al-Qaeda -- the authors say, "The growing body of publicly available evidence offers sufficient proof [to] warrant the immediate use of force."
Trevan and Ijaz write that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein "has rebuilt an intricate, clandestine global procurement system to funnel banned materials and technologies into his weapons programs." Moreover, the U.S. administration has recently revealed that a high-ranking Al-Qaeda operative recently received medical treatment in Baghdad. Jordanian-born Abu Musab Zarqawi is a chemical- and biological-weapons expert who has been linked to "an Iraqi terror group backed by [Saddam] Hussein to oppose Kurdish rebels."
"Iraq and Al-Qaeda are working together," say the authors. Iraq's president continues to harbor chemical and biological weapons. Al-Qaeda remains committed to conducting new attacks on targets worldwide, and Saddam Hussein "is its chief enabler. Detoxifying Iraq is not a separate, unrelated thread but the most important next step in the global war on terrorism."
Regional daily "Eurasia View" discusses the conviction and sentencing in Kazakhstan yesterday of prominent opposition journalist Sergei Duvanov on rape charges. Many observers believe the charges to be fabricated and politically motivated. Duvanov has consistently maintained that just before the alleged October encounter with the girl in question someone drugged his tea.
Many believe his prosecution "is an attempt by President Nursultan Nazarbaev's administration to gain retribution for [Duvanov's] investigative articles probing the possible involvement of top Kazakhstani officials in a massive corruption scheme." Moreover, Duvanov's arrest came just days before he was to travel to the United States for discussions of his investigations. His trial may have been an attempt to silence him.
The paper says Duvanov's case may not only have a "chilling effect on the independent press in Kazakhstan, but it could also serve to diminish the desire of foreign investors to do business in the country." A U.S.-based lawyer for Duvanov, Charles Both, says efforts to get foreign governments -- including the United States -- to protest the Kazakh authorities' treatment of Duvanov have met with no success. With Iraq, Al-Qaeda, and Afghanistan uppermost among the U.S. administration's concerns, Both said there is little chance they will turn their attention to human rights issues in the Central Asian region.
(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba contributed to this report.)