Prague, 2 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Commentary in the major Western dailies today is dominated by two major developments this week. In a speech yesterday, U.S. President George W. Bush announced that "major combat operations" in Iraq had come to an end. The focus is now on rebuilding the nation politically and rapidly restoring the function of essential services. There is also currently much discussion in the press of the long-awaited "road map" for peace in the Middle East, unveiled this week by the diplomatic "quartet" -- The United States, Russia, the United Nations, and the European Union.
THE NEW YORK TIMES:
Following U.S. President George W. Bush's announcement that major combat operations in Iraq have come to an end, an editorial in "The New York Times" says: "America's work in Iraq is far from done. If anything, securing a durable peace in Iraq will be harder than winning a military victory."
The paper notes that "millions of Iraqis are facing a collapse of law and order and wrenching interruptions of vital services, including water, electricity and health care." Security also "remains a critical problem." Now that combat is winding down, the United States "has a clear responsibility to ensure an early restoration of vital services."
The editorial goes on to say the U.S. Pentagon's effort "to establish a transitional Iraqi leadership as soon as possible is well intentioned, but [a] longer transition period would allow firmer institutions to be built and other [political] candidates to emerge, improving the odds for stability in the years ahead."
"The question was never whether American troops would succeed, or whether the regime they toppled would not be exposed to the world as a despicable one," says the editorial. "The question was, and still is, whether the administration has the patience to rebuild Iraq and set it on a course toward stable, enlightened governance. The chaotic situation in Afghanistan is no billboard for American talent at nation-building. The American administration of postwar Iraq has so far failed to match the efficiency and effectiveness of the military invasion."
Britain's "The Guardian" says the U.S. and Britain sought "to reshape, or ignore, international law" in the run-up to the Iraq crisis. And whether U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair "fully understand [the] broader institutional and geostrategic consequences of their actions" remains an open question. The "U.S.-British axis exposed [the] pre-existing flaws of the [United Nations] Security Council system," and the UN may never fully recover. Bush and Blair "split the European Union down the middle, transforming long-standing French mutterings about U.S. hegemony into a fully-fledged anti-American rebellion, turning east against west, 'old' Europe against 'new.'"
U.S.-British policy "wrought chaos in NATO, pulverized relations with key players like Russia and Turkey, and even [alienated] Canada and Mexico. While claiming to advance Arab-Israeli peacemaking, they actually delayed it, infuriating the Muslim world, undermining 'war on terror' priorities and almost daring Al-Qaeda to hit back." Washington and London issued warnings to Syria and Iran, goaded North Korea to a reckless nuclear brink, and meanwhile forgot all about Afghanistan, let alone the starving of Africa. And all for the sake of Saddam [Hussein]."
From the "blitzed buildings" in Iraq, the daily says, "the architecture of a very different world order may emerge. That of course is exactly the aim of Bush administration ideologues. For Europeans and others, that is the big challenge of the postwar era."
Peter Muench in the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" looks at the possibilities for solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict now that the U.S.-led war in Iraq is officially over.
Installing a democratic government in Baghdad is a laudable goal, says Muench, but the crux of the problem in the Middle East lies in finding a solution to the Palestinian issue. Peace in the Middle East is entirely subject to a settlement of the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Now that the U.S. administration has published a "road map" which foresees the establishment of a Palestinian state by 2005, America has "at least shown that it understands the problem." Bringing peace to the entire region is "the crucial test" for American credibility, he says. This is the only way in which the United States can mollify the hatred Arabs feel toward U.S. policies, and the only way America can establish the foundations for its ambition to bring peace and democracy to the Middle East.
The Arab world regards the United States with hate and suspicion, which makes it difficult for new Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) to accept overt U.S. support. This might actually be dangerous, says Muench, for as long as Abbas must focus on suppressing terrorism he will be considered "Washington's puppet."
On the other hand, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon likes to say he is "prepared" to make "painful compromises," which he has yet to define. Muench, however, says the Israeli premier now has no excuses for impeding the peace process since his main adversary, Palestinian Authority President Yassir Arafat, has ceased to be a partner in negotiations.
In a contribution to Britain's "Financial Times," former Palestinian negotiator Ahmad Samhi Khalidi, now of St. Antony's college at Oxford, says new Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) must "respond to long-standing domestic demands for change" while meeting U.S. and Israeli preconditions for implementing the "road map" for peace. Khalidi says this will require a "reassessment" of Palestinian strategy "while maintaining Palestinian national unity as a supreme goal."
Abbas's success at meeting these goals will depend on four main factors, says Khalidi. The first challenge will be maintaining a functional power-sharing agreement with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. The second will be Abbas's dealings with the Palestinian opposition. It seems probable that he will try to engage radical elements such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad in dialogue, but it remains uncertain whether they can be convinced to join the political process. Third, the new Palestinian cabinet "will have to prove itself effective," Khalidi says.
And finally, Abbas will need to "meet the concerns of outside parties." Israel is likely to demand that Palestinian security forces crack down on potential terrorists. "But Mr. Abbas's room for maneuver will be severely restricted unless Israel shows unprecedented self-restraint and a parallel willingness to provide the Palestinian public with a viable political horizon."
Writing in Britain's "The Independent," Adrian Hamilton says the immediate results of the release of the "road map" to Mideast peace are "most depressing." A Palestinian suicide bomb attack that killed three in Tel Aviv was followed by new Israeli incursions into Gaza, which killed eight. Israeli leaders continue to insist that all violence must end before negotiations can begin; the Palestinians answer that only an end to the incursions will give them sufficient leverage to be able to halt attacks on Israeli civilians.
Hamilton writes, "This descent into mutual recrimination is exactly what the 'road map' was supposed to avoid, by insisting that both sides step back from bloody confrontation." So far, he says, "there seems little natural momentum on either side" to do so.
Hamilton says it would thus seem the "hopes for peace rest not on internal pressures from the grass roots but on external pressure from other countries, in particular the U.S." But he says the chances that Washington will take a more even-handed approach remain slight. "Nor is there any political advantage for President Bush in getting entangled in peace negotiations [which] require huge personal commitment with only limited chances of success."
"Maybe it is for the best if the road-map fails," he says. "Peace imposed from above rarely, if ever, works. In the end the Israelis and the Palestinians are going to have to work out a modus vivendi. And because their people want it, not because someone else decides it."
THE WASHINGTON TIMES:
Writing in "The Washington Times," Jonah Goldberg of the "National Review" online publication says perhaps the world should not be in a rush to democratize Iraq. There are other priorities that must be attended to first, he says, before truly fair elections can take place. "Without law, order and civil society, democracy is mobocracy," he says. Goldberg points out that in a pure democracy, 51 percent of the people can impose their will on the other 49 percent. The point "is that the most important guarantees for freedom do not come from the ballot box; instead, they come from a series of laws and customs that respect individual rights."
The challenge for the United States "is to stay in Iraq not only long enough to build up the laws, courts and markets necessary for a successful society, but long enough for the society itself to regenerate. This means giving people time to see themselves not merely as Shia or Sunni, but as businessmen and soccer fans and a million other things that make people appreciate liberty." These diverse self-definitions "are the real antibodies against the disease of tyranny, because they prevent any one institution -- religion and state included -- from commanding the total loyalty of the people." Goldberg says it "will only be time to vote when [the public] square is filled with a crowd and the clerics are one voice among many."
The "Chicago Tribune" calls the release of the "road map" for Mideast peace "a singular moment of opportunity [for] a fresh peace initiative." It says one of the "crucial elements of the road map is that instead of calling for one side or the other to act first, it calls on both sides to act simultaneously." Israeli leaders "are balking, demanding a sequential approach in which Israel takes no steps before the Palestinians stop terrorist attacks. Tempting as it is for Israelis to take a wait-and-see attitude, that will not advance the causes of peace."
It is clear to all concerned that "violence and terrorism must effectively stop if there is to be any chance for the road map to succeed." Palestinian Prime Minster Mahmoud Abbas "is in an exceedingly tight spot. For Abbas to have any chance of building political support and surviving in his job, he must be able to show that his people are reaping benefits as he moves against the terrorists. That means Israel must immediately improve conditions on the ground for Palestinians -- such as lifting roadblocks or dismantling some Jewish outposts -- as confidence-building measures."
Members of the quartet "must make it clear that returning to the bloody status quo is not an option. They must use any means available, including the threat of painful sanctions or other penalties to discourage the parties from veering off the road."
(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba contributed to this report.)