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Western Press Review: Rebuilding Democratic Institutions -- Including A Free Press -- In Iraq; The SARS Virus

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 21 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Much of the commentary in the Western media today deals with what one paper calls the "Herculean" task of rebuilding Iraq in the postwar period. Anglo-American forces continue to try to maintain order in Baghdad and beyond and identify Iraqi leaders that can aid in administering the country. And, in other news, the mysterious SARS virus continues to infect people around the world.


"The Economist," the British-based weekly news magazine, says there will be three main aspects of "winning the peace" in Iraq: to repair the damage done to the United Nations, particularly to relations between the United States and France, Germany, and Russia; to "secure a lasting solution to the dispute" between Israel and the Palestinians; "and, above all, to reconstruct Iraq."

"The Economist" says that although the stated aim of operations in Iraq was to forcibly disarm it of weapons of mass destruction, "how history judges this war will depend largely on whether Iraq's people have been liberated to live a life unambiguously better than that under Saddam Hussein." If Iraq were merely to struggle along in the postwar period, and if its oil wealth were to "fall into the hands of another corrupt, brutal regime," Iraq will become "a symbol of the failure of the West, above all of America, to live up to its promises -- and a powerful recruiting tool" for anti-Western sentiment. But creating "a prosperous democracy [could] change the Middle East far more than sanctions or military force."

Those involved in the rebuilding will have to understand that political and economic reforms "are inextricably intertwined," says the weekly. "One cannot succeed without the other."


Writing in "The New York Times," staff writer Michael Gordon says the United States has been seeking out civic leaders for Iraq, "urging them to take on the task of administering their towns and cities and providing the necessary security and support." But the attempt to find Iraqi leaders that can help administer Baghdad has proven unsuccessful, he says.

The commanders of U.S. forces in Iraq are trying to avoid the type of open-ended presence of the kind that characterized U.S. involvement in the Balkans. But attempts to limit the number of U.S. forces serving in the Persian Gulf will rely on "two critical assumptions," Gordon says. The first supposition is that Baghdad and the rest of Iraq will be successfully stabilized. Second, limited U.S. involvement assumes that other nations will be willing to send troops to help with the effort. "The United States is still counting on sharing the peacekeeping burden. That means it is hoping for the deployment of substantial allied forces in addition to the British and small, largely symbolic contributions from Albania and other nations."

One thing is already clear, says Gordon. "[The] fulfillment of the American enterprise in Iraq and the United States' ability to reduce its forces in the country no longer depend solely on achievements on the battlefield. It also depends mightily on success in encouraging the establishment of a new Iraqi authority that can work with the Americans as it begins to govern Baghdad and the nation."


In a contribution to the "Washington Times," Mark Pomar of the International Research and Exchanges Board, a nonprofit organization that seeks to develop independent media in Europe and the Near East, says ensuring a free press will be vital to the development of democratic institutions in Iraq. "In today's world," he writes, "television, radio, the Internet, and newspapers are the backbone of meaningful elections, free-market institutions, communication between citizens and policy-makers, and civic awareness in local communities. The media can also serve as watchdogs against corruption and repression."

Five points are essential to building the infrastructure for an independent media, says Pomar. First, the physical infrastructure must be present, including the tools for radio and television transmission, printing facilities, and Internet access. Second, there must be media laws that free the press "from interference by future Iraqi governments, political parties, or criminal forces." Next, the state broadcasting apparatus should be transformed into "a public service broadcaster that focuses on educational, news, and public affairs."

Pomar's fourth point recommends professional journalistic training within Iraq, and developing media resources "that can fight for the independence of media and for the rights of journalists." Finally, a form of media monitoring is necessary to ensure the press is not misused for the political purposes of fringe groups. If Iraq's new media "can be free of state control [and] reflect a broad range of opinion, then it is likely the United States will be able to withdraw its military presence more quickly from the country and region."


Bob Herbert of "The New York Times" discusses the U.S. administration's award of the first major Iraqi reconstruction project, worth $680 million over 18 months, to the politically connected Bechtel group. Former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz is a board member and senior counselor of Bechtel, and previously served as the company's president. Shultz was also chairman of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, which columnist Herbert calls a "fiercely pro-war" organization that was "committed to moving beyond the mere political liberation of the oil-rich country to [the] conveniently profitable 'reconstruction of its economy.'" Herbert suggests Shultz had hoped all along that Bechtel would be involved profitably in Iraqi reconstruction.

He says in the run-up to the war, not much attention was paid "to the grotesque conflict of interest engaged in by corporate titans and their government cronies who were pushing young American men and women into the flames of a war that ultimately would pour billions of dollars into a very select group of corporate coffers."

The push for war "followed immediately by profiteering inevitably raise[s] questions about the real reasons" for the operations in Iraq, Herbert says. U.S. President George W. Bush said it was about weapons of mass destruction, getting rid of Saddam Hussein, and generating democracy in the Middle East. "The two things that were never openly discussed [were] oil and money. Those crucial topics were left to the major behind-the-scenes operators, many of whom are now cashing in."


Pascal Riche of France's "Liberation" says Washington and London are now facing the Herculean task of rebuilding Iraq according to a democratic model. The task that awaits retired General Jay Garner, who will oversee Iraq's temporary administration, is monumental, Riche says. Garner must organize humanitarian aid, set up a health-care system, restore the looted ministries, return civil servants to work, build a judicial system, launch a new currency, and construct a new Iraqi constitution that includes representation for all parties in Iraq's diverse population. And Garner must do all this without creating the impression of an occupying power, but only a temporary administration.

Riche goes on to say "The New York Times" has reported the U.S. administration plans to keep four permanent military bases in Iraq, which will give them a permanent presence in the heart of the Middle East. The new bases will allow the United States to remove their troops from some of the bases in Turkey as well as from Saudi Arabia, where their presence inflames elements of public opinion. The United States will have to be certain that the new Iraqi government will allow their military presence on Iraqi soil, Riche says, noting that demonstrations around the country in the last week have shown that while Iraqis do not long for the former regime, they nevertheless want to see U.S. forces soon leave Iraq.


Several items in Western media outlets today debate the lifting of UN sanctions on Iraq. The "International Herald Tribune" suggests lifting the sanctions in early June, when the current mandate of the UN oil-for-food program expires. The months preceding should be enough time to come to an agreement on the UN role in Iraq's rebuilding, the paper says. The international community should now be seeking ways to increase Iraq's oil revenue "as quickly as possible to rebuild a shattered country and improve the living standards of its people."

If all the members of the Security Council bear in mind that the good of the Iraqi people is the first priority, the "Tribune" says the coming debate over lifting the sanctions "can be used to start healing trans-Atlantic divisions." The paper says that the United States, France, Germany, Russia, and China -- all five permanent members of the council -- should take "a pragmatic approach aimed at narrowing rather than perpetuating past differences."


An editorial in the British "Daily Telegraph" discusses the outbreak of SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. The paper says it is easy to overreact to mysterious illnesses, and so it is valuable to put SARS in perspective. While each death is a tragedy, particularly those that could have been prevented, the paper points out that only a minority of SARS cases prove fatal.

"The legacy of SARS may turn out to be political rather than epidemiological," says the "Telegraph." "The removal of the Chinese health minister, Zhang Wenkang, could catalyze something much bigger. Like any authoritarian regime, Red China is built on repression and centralization." The SARS outbreak may serve "to expose the rottenness of a polity more vividly than any dissident. For weeks, the Chinese officials have lied to their own people and to the outside world about the outbreak." It adds: deception on this scale "serves to delegitimize a regime." And a tyranny "can take only so many blows to its credibility."

But the paper says democracies can have similar problems, remarking that public health services often show "worrying signs of being, like their Chinese counterparts, more concerned with statistics than reality."


Writing in Britain's "Independent," health editor Jeremy Laurance calls SARS "the first serious new disease of the 21st Century." Yet it was not until yesterday that China began "to take serious, strenuous, and public actions" against it, although the first cases appeared in November. Chinese officials did not alert health authorities of the outbreak until February, "when the disease had begun to spread around the world." Laurance says, "Only now, with the [Chinese] minister of health and the mayor of [Beijing] being fired, with dramatically higher figures for the spread of the disease being published and the Golden Week Labor Day holidays being canceled, has the leadership begun to face what could be the greatest threat to its credibility since Tiananmen Square in 1989." He says the spread of SARS should prove a lesson as to how vital it is that "every nation recognizes the importance of honest reporting and shared information."