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Western Press Review: The Loss Of 'Columbia,' Havel Steps Down, Iraq

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 3 Februuary 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Much of the Western media today is dominated by discussion of the space shuttle "Columbia's" breakup upon re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere on 1 February. All seven members of the shuttle's international crew were killed. An independent investigation is now pending into the cause of the disaster.

Other commentary bids farewell to Vaclav Havel, who stepped down yesterday after serving as Czech president for most of the 13 years since his nation rejected communism. Shifting trans-Atlantic alliances and national interests are also discussed, as are China's dissident movement and the possibility of U.S.-led military operations in Iraq.


An editorial in "The Wall Street Journal Europe" today eulogizes the seven shuttle astronauts who died on 1 February. The paper says the five men and two women aboard the shuttle "belonged to a small band of space-industry workers -- pilots, astronomers, scientists, engineers, doctors -- who are the great adventurers of our age."

On this particular mission, the crew was exploring "not just the frontiers of space itself, but also of medicine, biology, physics, and other scientific disciplines." During the 16-day mission, "they conducted 90 experiments aimed at finding solutions for problems plaguing us here on Earth. Their work had to do with fighting cancer, improving crop yields, developing fire-suppression techniques, building earthquake-resistant buildings, and understanding the effects of dust storms on weather."

The editorial says the question naturally arises whether space exploration is worth the obvious risks. But it says as yet, we can only imagine some of the benefits of such research. Other astronauts will follow these seven into space, the paper says, and space exploration will continue.


The British daily "The Independent" says the "Columbia" shuttle disaster is something that goes beyond grief and awe. "The conquest of space is a symbol [of] human pride in technological achievement." The continuing exploration of space shows "[if] America, and by extension humanity, puts its full resources behind something, it can be done."

There are three main reasons for space research, the paper points out: military applications, commercial use, and pure science. But following this disaster, there may be talk of scaling down space exploration. "An event of this kind is bound to give pause for thought about the costs and benefits of space exploration," the paper writes. It is also likely "to mark a further stage in coming to terms with the limits of human endeavor."

The paper adds that the "Columbia" disaster may make the United States "[come] to terms with the idea of limits to its power."


In France's "Liberation," Jean-Michel Thenard says that as the world worries about a possible military confrontation in Iraq, the destruction of the space shuttle "Columbia" may seem to some a bad omen. Rationalists will be careful to avoid this line of thinking, he says, although it bears noting that even in areas in which the U.S. has no competition, its power is still "fallible."

Despite the scientific knowledge at work, the technological know-how and the training of the crew, space exploration entails significant risk. And now the debate over whether manned space flights are worth these risks begins anew. Some argue that unmanned flights and robots can conduct experiments just as well, while avoiding human risk. Thenard says this argument is well-reasoned scientifically but philosophically wrong. It forgets "the necessary dream," he says, the willingness to venture where others would not dare. America would not have been discovered without the daring of Christopher Columbus, Thenard points out. Propagating a new dream of space exploration might even be effective in countering terrorism, he says.


An editorial in "The New York Times" today says when Vaclav Havel stepped down after 13 years as Czech president yesterday, he took with him his own "exceptional" brand of "individual moral authority." But what he leaves behind "is the sense that in the life of a nation the character of its leaders matters. He showed us that speaking honestly and deeply when you are expected merely to express platitudes brings its own political authority."

Havel was able to help "harness popular resistance into a force that peacefully overwhelmed the communist regime" in 1989. But the paper says his "genius" also lies in his understanding "that to take on the trappings of leadership did not mean to betray his humanity." Havel "never stopped being a dissident. His immense early popularity gradually ebbed, in part because he continued to remind his compatriots that their newfound democracy depended on their everyday moral vigilance. He remained, like most artists and many intellectuals, an outsider."

Yet Havel shone internationally as well, the paper says. The Czech Republic joined NATO in 1999 and is expected to become a member of the European Union in 2004. For these and other reasons, the paper says both "Czechs and the rest of us are better off because of him."


In a contribution to "The Washington Times," William Hawkins of the U.S. Business and Industry Council says Franco-German resistance to the United States' march toward war in Iraq is, in part, about "their vision of Europe's position in the world vis-a-vis the United States." Like the Russians and the Chinese, he says, some European states see American hegemony as placing limitations upon their own options to act in their national interest.

Hawkins continues: "In the eyes of its most determined backers in France and Germany, the European Union was created to match the power of the United States. And though it may have democratic roots, the EU as an institution has its own ideology and ambitions which set it apart from, and in some cases put it in contention with, American interests and values."

As a result of competing interests and shifting alliances, Hawkins says U.S. President George W. Bush's stated intention of using a "coalition of the willing" for possible military operations in Iraq rather than depend on the UN is the new "pattern American diplomats will have to become adept at managing in a dynamic world with many competing players."


In "The Washington Post," staff writer Fred Hiatt looks at the recent arrival of Chinese dissident Xu Wenli in the United States. Hiatt says Xu's parole directly from prison to foreign exile might make it seem as if China's communist regime "has won another round." After all, he points out, many other reform-minded Chinese dissidents languish in jail while "everyone who matters, from [U.S.] President [George W.] Bush on down, acquiesces."

Xu has spent 16 of the past 21 years in jail. After his arrival in the United States, Xu said it is too soon to judge China's new leadership under Hu Jintao. Xu urged that the West should "neither pressure [Hu] too forcefully nor praise him with such flattery that his position, if he proves to be a reformer, might be compromised" within China.

Hiatt questions why the Chinese leadership is so afraid of reformist impulses. The answer, he says, is likely that they feel insecure. With "rising corruption; the 100 million or more roving unemployed; the huge inequalities between city and [country]; the massive debts of state-owned enterprises, and the rising anger there of cheated workers -- these problems loom over the leaders and leave them feeling threatened by the slightest sign of political resistance."

But by resisting change, Hiatt says the real loser is not the dissident movement but China itself.


In "The Washington Times," editor-at-large Arnaud de Borchgrave cites the "most experienced counterterrorist investigator in the Western world," Jean-Louis Bruguiere, as saying Islamic militants have recruited hundreds to carry out terrorist attacks if the United States launches a war with Iraq.

Without UN approval, Bruguiere says any U.S.-led military operation in Iraq will exacerbate global anti-American sentiment and fuel international terrorists. De Borchgrave says, "All Western European intelligence services, including Britain's MI-6, now agree that an invasion of Iraq would be [a] catalytic agent for would-be jihadi terrorists from all over the Muslim world and Muslim communities in Western democracies." Europe's counterterrorist community believes U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan were "tantamount to kicking a hornet's nest instead of capturing it and neutralizing it."

But Europe's perception "is almost the exact opposite of the [U.S.] administration's view of world events," he says. Hard-liners in the U.S. administration and the ruling Likud Party in Israel are also convinced Iraqi President "Saddam Hussein's downfall will be a major setback for global terrorism."

Europe believes the threat from Saddam can be effectively contained -- but this view is dismissed as "appeasement" by the war hawks. Moreover, the idea of a democratic postwar Iraq is a "fantasy," de Borchgrave says. But even so, he says U.S. President George W. Bush "has no intention of succumbing to the UN process" and calling off military operations in Iraq.


Switzerland's "Neue Zuercher Zeitung" predicts hard times ahead for the U.S. space program following the 1 February space shuttle disaster, in which all seven astronauts were killed as the "Columbia" disintegrated while preparing to land in Florida at the conclusion of a 16-day mission.

Until now, says the paper, manned space flights were regarded as an "everyday, unspectacular routine." But this illusion was refuted with the "Columbia" disaster. Since the U.S. achieved the first moon landing in 1969, space research has been a source of national pride. Now that cuts in funding are receiving new scrutiny, some are suggesting that austerity measures led to a reduction in safety measures. All flights are now grounded until a thorough investigation into the accident is completed.

For months, or perhaps even years, Russia will be the only nation undertaking space ventures. But even Russia currently has only two Soyuz spacecraft. It is not so much the real threat of terrorism but the sense of a threat that makes Americans believe home security is far more important than the study of tumors in zero-gravity.

Americans are no longer so concerned whether scientists are undertaking research in a space station. Today, scientific research is faced with budget cuts and public indifference, and thus, future programs are in jeopardy.


Uwe Schmitt in the German daily "Die Welt," also predicts the U.S. shuttle program will be frozen. But he says that after America recovers from the initial shock, the space program will be regarded with new enthusiasm.

Just as 11 September 2001 destroyed a sense of security at home and forced some self-reflection, so 1 February 2003 proved the vulnerability of U.S. supremacy in space travel. Sometimes, "therapy lies in shock," says Schmitt.


An editorial in the "International Herald Tribune" notes that U.S. officials are now working "feverishly" to declassify satellite photos and other information in time for U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's speech at the UN Security Council on 5 February, in which he is expected to present concrete proof for why U.S.-led military operations in Iraq are necessary.

But the paper says there should not be a last-minute scramble to furnish the appropriate proof. "Powell's assignment should not have caught the administration by surprise," it writes. "Throughout this long crisis there has been an unsettling sense of improvisation to the administration's explanations of its concerns, goals and postwar plans. [Even] the rationale for war seems to change from day to day."

U.S. President George W. Bush has listed many and varied reasons for calling for a war in Iraq. But "serious and consequential decisions lie ahead," the editorial says. "The administration owes the American people and the rest of the world a more careful and consistent approach."

The paper says: "Washington's planning for how to govern Iraq after a war seems equally scattershot. Administration officials have talked about installing Iraqi opposition figures, imposing an American military administration based on the model from postwar Germany or Japan, and naming an official [to] administer civil affairs. Continued haziness on these issues is particularly worrying because stumbles here could negate the value of a military victory."


In the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung," Andreas Oldag discusses the report that Secretary of State Colin Powell is due to deliver at the UN Security Council this week, which should be a strong indictment of Iraq's hidden weapons of mass destruction.

"It is questionable whether the U.S. administration's multimedia show will convince the members of the Security Council of the necessity to go to war with Iraq," Oldag says. "The problem lies in that Powell is hardly likely to exhibit clear proof of 'smoking guns.' Instead, the UN should expect a confusing paper chase," he says.

But Oldag says the U.S. is comfortably positioned either way. "If it receives stronger support from the Security Council, then that is fine. Powell can certainly come to terms with a second UN resolution, which should take the form of an ultimatum to Baghdad. But if the Security Council resists, that does not matter either. Washington has long ago decided to topple the Iraqi despot. The only question is whether Saddam Hussein will go on his own or whether Marines will have to throw him out of his palace stronghold.

"The Americans cannot wait much longer," Oldag says. "It will be impossible to keep the U.S. Marines alert for months just drinking Coca-Cola" in the desert, he says.

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