Prague, 30 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Several items in the Western dailies today address the persistent failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to support prewar U.S. and British claims that the regime of Saddam Hussein posed a threat to the region and beyond. As U.S. President George W. Bush's trip to Europe and the Middle East begins tonight in Poland, Washington's relations with its EU allies and Russia are also at issue.
A "Financial Times" editorial bluntly asks: "Where are they?" The paper refers to Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction, which the United States and British administrations considered dangerous enough to constitute a main casus belli for the war. Yet "the reality is that, 45 days after the war's end, all the U.S. and UK appear to have found is two empty trailers suspected of having been mobile bio-weapon laboratories," the "FT" says.
"So did the U.S. and UK intelligence services get it wrong, or were their political masters lying? It seems a bit of both," says the paper. Much of the evidence that Iraq might have had WMD was based on conjecture, questionable sources, or simply outdated. "But in the mouths of U.S. and British politicians, questions turned into assertions embroidered with assumptions."
"For their part, the Pentagon hawks apparently turned to their own Iraqi exile sources" for intelligence information, rather than relying on the "more dovish estimates" of their own intelligence agencies.
The "FT" says the "intelligence failures in Iraq raise many questions," including why Hussein was so uncooperative with weapons inspectors if he had so little to hide. But there is also "one overwhelming caution" for the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush: "If it ever wants to put its doctrine of preemptive war into practice again, it will need to come up with far more convincing proof of threats than it showed in Iraq."
THE WASHINGTON POST:
As U.S. President George W. Bush is scheduled to take part in the 300th anniversary of the founding of St. Petersburg tomorrow, an editorial in "The Washington Post" says Bush's visit to Russia will reveal "gleaming spires and fresh paint." But Bush will not see "any homeless people or meet many of the locals: The homeless have been cleared from the [streets], and the locals have been told that they would be better off leaving town. [A] fence will line the road from the airport so that the dignitaries cannot see the poverty."
"In other words," says the "Post," "the tradition of the Potemkin village lives on." It writes: "In recent weeks, the Bush administration has recommended a large cut in funding of aid to Russia -- more than a third from the past fiscal year -- which will probably kill off some of the programs Russia needs most: those that promote human rights and democratization." While Russian society is much more open than it was before, the media is often still controlled by state interests, the judicial system is corrupt and President Vladimir Putin's political opponents "find it ever harder to maneuver." The paper says to believe that Russia is already a full democracy is to be "fooled by a barely plausible facade."
The "Post" says the United States should be concerned that Russia continues to democratize, "not merely because it is right but because it makes strategic sense."
An editorial in today's "Financial Times" says during the prolonged diplomatic wrangling across the Atlantic ahead of the U.S.- and British-led Iraq war, "both sides fell too easily into simplistic generalizations. The U.S. was said to be interested only in Iraq's oil. France, Germany, and Russia were accused of being concerned only about lucrative contracts with Baghdad." And while the dispute damaged the United Nations and the EU, the damage was most serious to NATO.
The UN is already recovering by carving out a prominent role for itself in postwar Iraq. EU aspirations of forming a common foreign policy among its member states were dealt a significant setback, however. But the paper says perhaps the divisions over Iraq merely revealed that the EU held "unrealistic expectations" of how quickly centuries of European history could be overcome by a unified worldview.
It is the trans-Atlantic military alliance that has suffered most by the recent discord. As NATO struggles to find a new role for itself in the era following the collapse of its traditional adversary, the Soviet Union, "there is clearly no agreement [among] its members on the common threat it faces, or on strategy for dealing with an uncertain world."
European nations "have yet to find a response to the new doctrine of unilateral preemption wherever Washington sees a threat to its security." And unless NATO's other members "can devise a strategy for living with the world's only superpower, further diplomatic disasters are highly likely."
INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE:
Writing in the "International Herald Tribune," the Brookings Institution's Michael O'Hanlon says U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and some others at the U.S. Pentagon "appear to be waging a private vendetta against the French" for Paris's opposition to military action in Iraq. But O'Hanlon says given the help provided to the U.S. by French military and intelligence services, the United States' "petty retaliation" is a self-defeating and counterproductive strategy.
Even as others in the U.S. administration also "send a strong message" to Paris, "they realize the continued importance" of the Paris-Washington alliance. French military assistance will likely be needed in Iraq, O'Hanlon says. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld "has stubbornly refused to recognize the challenges associated with stabilizing Iraq. He left U.S. troops unprepared to stop postwar looting and crime, [and] continues to entertain the illusion that America can quickly reduce its military presence there."
Eventually, O'Hanlon says, Rumsfeld "will probably realize that America needs much more allied help to conduct a long and large operation in Iraq. At that point, America will again need France. It is time for Rumsfeld to cool down and to place lasting U.S. interests ahead of personal pique."
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE:
A "Wall Street Journal Europe" editorial says of the U.S. president's trip to the continent, it will probably "take a lot more than one trip and a few speeches to mend the rift that Iraq exposed in the erstwhile Atlantic alliance."
"It's no accident that Bush's first stop will be Poland," the paper says, as Poland supported the U.S.-led war and sent troops to Iraq. Of the world leaders that opposed the Iraqi war, Bush will visit only Russia's President Vladimir Putin for any significant amount of time, which the paper says "recognizes that Mr. Putin was more follower then ringleader of the anti-U.S. cabal." Germany's Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, on the other hand, will "[get] the presidential brush-off" while France's Jacques Chirac will receive "a mere 'courtesy call.'"
But the "Journal" says this conduct is not based on "revenge or petulance." It is merely a recognition of the emerging "Atlanticism of the willing." The Iraq debate revealed two visions of a united Europe," the paper says. The French "want a Europe that operates as a new global power that will be a check on U.S. interests and influence." The other vision -- shared by Polish, Spanish, and British leaders -- "is of a Europe that may be closer politically and economically but still works with the U.S. to promote shared values and interests."
INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE:
In a contribution to the "International Herald Tribune," Diederik Lohman of Human Rights Watch says as world leaders wine and dine in St. Petersburg to celebrate the founding of Russian President Vladimir Putin's hometown 300 years ago, they should "remember the black pages" of their host's political record. "In 1999, as prime minister, Putin sent Russian troops to Chechnya, ostensibly to bring peace and stability to that troubled region. But the troops' brutal force quickly alienated a population already gasping for peace. Four years on, Russian troops and Chechen rebels are still engaged in a bitter guerrilla war, with civilians the primary victims."
Lohman says, "Over the last three years, hundreds of people taken into custody by Russian troops have disappeared, though in some cases their mutilated dead bodies have been found." Since the beginning of 2003, over 60 people have disappeared every month.
"Yet Putin rejects all criticism of his troops' behavior in Chechnya, asserting that Russia's military operation is its contribution to the U.S.-led war on terrorism."
"Nobody wants to spoil a party," says Lohman. "But the leaders visiting St. Petersburg should confront the reality that Chechens live in misery, wondering from one day to the next whether masked men will come in the middle of the night and take their loved ones away. The assembled heads of state should demand that Russian forces conduct operations in a way that will protect, not alienate, Chechens."
France's "Le Monde" says it appears the U.S. and British administrations have launched a campaign of manipulation to persuade world public opinion that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Washington and London claimed these weapons, in the hands of Hussein, posed a threat to Iraq's neighbors, the United States and potentially the world, if launched by Baghdad or sold to terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda. "Le Monde" says such allegations may turn out to be part of one of the biggest national lies of recent years.
Iraq did have such weapons in 1991, the paper says. But a prolonged campaign of inspection and destruction led by the UN contributed significantly to dismantling this arsenal. Most likely, Hussein did conceal some of his weapons, says the paper. But it says Iraq likely destroyed what remained sometime after November 2002, when the UN voted on Resolution 1441 authorizing the return of inspectors to Baghdad. Hence, the inspectors' failure to find the remaining armaments.
Washington and London cited various documents to serve as "evidence" that Iraq was deceiving inspectors and that war was inevitable. Lacking irrefutable proof, they supplied "partial, truncated, questionable" information. "In short," says "Le Monde," America "bluffed."
The truth is now clear, the paper says: The war was launched not to destroy suspected weapons but "to change the regime in Baghdad and begin to remodel the Middle East. The weapons served only as a pretext."
FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE ZEITUNG:
The lack of evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the suspected existence of which constituted one of the main reasons for the war in Iraq, is the subject of a commentary in Germany's "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung."
"In international politics, legitimacy and credibility are valuable goods," the paper writes. And "as the Iraqi conflict demonstrated, they can quickly evaporate." Now it is coming to light that there is "little proof" behind the arguments put forward by U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who are now faced with "accusations of plainly leading public opinion astray."
Apparently, according to the commentary, the U.S. administration "balked at overtly stating its true intentions -- to stabilize the situation in the Middle East by exerting American power."
The United States would not have earned much support by arguing that the road to peace in Jerusalem runs via Baghdad. But in that case, says the commentary, the situation would have at least been clear, if not acceptable. "Nobody likes to be deceived."
The paper says if Washington wants to reverse the negative impression it has made, "it should not treat its allies as imbeciles, which undermines both the credibility and legitimacy that even a great power vitally needs."
(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba contributed to this report.)