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Western Press Review: Shifting Alliances And The Debate Over Iraq, Turkmen Repression, Iranian Reform

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 10 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Discussion in the Western press today continues to focus on Iraq and whether the U.S. administration has made a compelling case for the need for military action to stave off the alleged threat posed by Baghdad's weapons programs. Shifting geostrategic relations have been one result of the ongoing deliberations, as nations on both sides of the debate further polarize their views. Other discussion centers on Iran's attempts at reform and totalitarianism in Turkmenistan, as well as "unfinished business" in Afghanistan.


The weekend issue of the "International Herald Tribune" carries an item in which syndicated columnist William Pfaff discusses U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's presentation on Iraq at the UN Security Council last week (5 February). Pfaff says a just war must "have a grave cause" and be the "last resort" after all peaceful solutions have failed. In making the case that military action in Iraq satisfies these conditions, Pfaff says Powell failed to produce "new evidence that Iraq is an active threat to international society, or [a] real threat to the United States." Some observers were also skeptical that the United States "had taken so long to put together a detailed case against the Iraqi regime" for the UN, Pfaff adds.

He asks, would an attack on Iraq be "a disinterested act to protect regional and international security?" Or would it merely be "part of a geopolitical strategy that primarily serves perceived American and Israeli national interests in the region?"

Pfaff says that for Washington, the decision over whether to wage war has been made. "The only relevant arguments are how to maximize political support [and] how to assemble practical and financial support for its vast project to remake Iraq [after] the war." But Powell's speech did not do much convincing, Pfaff says. If more governments now "rally to the American cause, it will be pressure, not persuasion, that brings them over."


In "The Washington Post," columnist William Raspberry says U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell's 5 February UN presentation made a convincing case that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is in "material breach" of UN mandates. The Iraqi leader was "not merely less than forthcoming; he was determinedly duplicitous," Raspberry says. Powell made a "virtually irrefutable" case that Saddam is "malevolent" and "dangerous." But "he did not make the case for war."

Raspberry says that ironically, Powell's extensive presentation at the UN may have undermined his own argument. The "ability to know what is going on in Iraq's secretive society is nothing short of stunning," writes Raspberry. "Doesn't it follow that we will know, in advance, of Iraq's intention to launch an attack? Doesn't Hussein now know that we'll know [of his intentions] -- and that we are prepared to act?" Raspberry says Powell convinced him that Saddam Hussein "is so unlikely to get away with any funny stuff that a unilateral military attack on him becomes less necessary."


A "Boston Globe" editorial today takes another look at U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's recent dismissal of France and Germany as "old Europe." Rumsfeld made the remarks in reference to Franco-German reservations over military intervention in Iraq, unfavorably contrasting Paris and Berlin's hesitations to the more enthusiastic support for the U.S. coming out of other European capitals.

The "Globe" says the U.S. administration would benefit from a closer look at France and Germany, which remain the two major European powers. Paris and Berlin are far from agreement on the Iraq issue, the paper says, and they are in the midst of a struggle to preserve their own traditional relationship "within an enlarging and decidedly new Europe."

"Americans and Europeans alike stand to benefit if the example of cooperation between the French and German leaders [becomes] a template for the shaping of a European Union that is soon to include 10 new members," the "Globe" writes. Paris and Berlin "have led the way in transforming Europe from a battleground to a zone of peace."

A U.S. administration that fails "to forge solidarity with the new Europe that is being built" on the model of cooperation established 40 years ago by the signing of the Franco-German Friendship Treaty at Elysee, will give the impression that it does not understand America's interest in, and the continuing importance of, a strong trans-Atlantic alliance.


In her monthly column for "The Washington Post," deputy editor Masha Lipman of the Russian news magazine "Ezhenedel'ny Zhurnal" says the regime of Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov is "a totalitarian autocracy of Orwellian -- or Stalinist -- dimensions." Niyazov has created a "brutal and isolationist totalitarian regime...[Any] trace of political opposition has been eradicated. Torture, lawless arrests and disappearances of people are common. A free press does not exist."

A November 2002 assassination attempt has been used as a pretext for cracking down on the political opposition, says Lipman, although she adds there is some suspicion the assassination attempt had been staged.

Following the attempt, Niyazov "promptly named the perpetrators." The alleged plotters, "the nation was informed, included several high-ranking officials who had dared criticize Niyazov's regime...[Within] two months of the alleged assassination attempt, 46 people had been convicted as plotters."

Lipman says Russia, for one, "is far too pragmatic these days to antagonize Turkmenistan's dictator and thereby threaten its ties with a country rich in natural gas." And since the 11 September attacks, the interest of many nations in human rights "has subsided dramatically," she says.

The world "has expressed hardly any concern over Niyazov's regime." And today, with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein "picked by the United States as the epitome of evil, other villainous leaders can kill and torture their citizens undisturbed."


The German daily "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" looks at Germany's announcement yesterday (9 February) that it will join France in presenting an initiative to the UN Security Council on disarming Iraq without resorting to war. The proposal has heightened resentment between the United States and France and Germany, the two main European allies resisting military action.

The paper says the German federal government "is in trouble. The relationship with America has not been decontaminated, Berlin has maneuvered itself into a marginal position, its claims to EU leadership are crumbling, and in the UN Security Council, German diplomats are experiencing the most embarrassing days of their lives."


The German-Franco project of robust UN inspections in Iraq, "although untimely, is worth considering," says Alan Posener in "Die Welt." But the manner in which the proposal has been launched, as "an idea conjured from a hat, lacks sincerity and betrays a sense of panic," he says.

This situation is also a consequence of German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's antiwar election ploy, which has had "ruinous consequences," he says. In fact, Posener dismisses what he calls the "unrealistic vision of Iraq acceding voluntarily to becoming a UN protectorate" as a "mirage," an illusion with no substance.


A "New York Times" editorial remarks that this month's 24th anniversary of the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's Islamic revolution has, understandably, brought little celebration in Iran. "A movement that once brought millions into the streets demanding freedom from the shah's dictatorship has gone on to oppress its young, disillusion its middle-aged veterans and silence even grand ayatollahs who question its course."

Two recent events highlight the "growing isolation" of the unelected conservative clerics that hold real power in the country, the paper says. One is the arrest and sentencing of reform strategist Abbas Abdi to seven years imprisonment for publishing a poll showing three out of four Iranians favor re-establishing diplomatic relations with Washington. Ironically, Abdi was one of the students who led the 1979 takeover of the American embassy in Tehran. Late last month, Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri-Najafabadi, once slated to be the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's successor, was freed after five years under house arrest for criticizing the conservative path Iran has followed since the revolution.

But the paper says the "biggest threat to continued clerical dictatorship comes from young Iranians," most of whom are under 30. "For them, the rule of the mullahs has meant stunted job and housing prospects and furtive social lives...[The] mullahs believe that by jailing people like Abbas Abdi they can delay needed changes indefinitely. They are wrong," the paper says.


A "Le Monde" editorial says that during the Gulf War of 1991, U.S. leaders were divided over whether to advance into Baghdad and finish off the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Some argued that such action was not included in the UN mandate authorizing the eviction of Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Moreover, the United States had little interest in occupying a large, remote Arab capital. "Le Monde" notes then chief of staff Colin Powell, now U.S. secretary of state, was one of those opposed to a Baghdad offensive. And yet today, this is exactly what Powell is prescribing, even while Washington's plans for a postwar Iraq remain sketchy. What mandate exists for occupying the capital of a nation of 20 million people, the paper asks. To ask such questions is not to defend the indefensible regime of Saddam Hussein, the paper emphasizes. But one must consider the risks.

An optimistic scenario would see a newly reconstituted Iraqi army quickly re-assuming power in the postwar period, reassuring the population and organizing elections. But alternatively, the stabilization of a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq could call for a prolonged military occupation over several years, which might eventually fuel an anti-American backlash and a new tide of anti-Western terrorism. Such a scenario characterized the war in Lebanon in the early 1980s. The paper points out that today's postwar Afghanistan remains reliant on a "nonexistent" central power, while control is wielded by warlords amid continuing instability. "Le Monde" says the Afghan experience is not reassuring ahead of a military adventure in Iraq.


In the British "Financial Times," Isobel Coleman of the Council on Foreign Relations says recent heavy fighting between Western-Afghan coalition forces and Taliban remnants shows that the Taliban is attempting to "regroup and reassert" its presence. As Washington "gears up for war in Iraq," Coleman warns the U.S. "must not forget that it has significant unfinished business in Afghanistan. And while security concerns seem paramount, stabilizing the economy is equally important, in fact integral, to long-term security in the region."

"Afghanistan remains unnervingly fragile," she says. "Basic security and stability have still not been achieved." Instead of expanding the International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF), the U.S. "remains committed to training a professional, multi-ethnic Afghan National Army. But that will take years," says Coleman. "After months of boot camp, only one company of 50 men has been deployed...[Meanwhile,] outside Kabul, regional warlords and bandits, often in cahoots, prevail."

Coleman says that without true stability and security, "there is no hope for the economy." And "without a stable economy, there is little hope for the people."

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