Prague, 31 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Several Western dailies today comment on U.S. President George W. Bush's news conference yesterday, his first in four months, in which he took questions from the press on a range of domestic and international issues.
Also discussed is Russian-Iranian military cooperation, the continuing dominance of regional warlords over life in Afghanistan, and rethinking NATO to meet today's threats.
THE NEW YORK TIMES:
A "New York Times" editorial says U.S. President George W. Bush is known for focusing on only a few issues "and repeating a few well-burnished talking points over and over." But during his rare appearance at a news conference yesterday -- his first in four months -- Bush "should have been able to come up with better responses to two [big] questions: why he ordered the invasion of Iraq and why he pushed for tax cuts that have left the nation sinking into a hopeless quagmire of debt."
The paper says Bush's "vague and sometimes incoherent" responses suggest the president had simply decided to sidestep the difficult questions about his foreign and domestic policies. For example, Bush will not discuss whether his administration exaggerated the threat posed by Iraq in the run-up to war. The paper says Saddam Hussein was a menace to the Iraqi people, and "a prosperous, open society in Iraq" would be a beneficial outcome. But these considerations "[do] not cancel out the fact that the primary reasons Washington gave for the invasion look increasingly suspect. That is a serious problem, both in terms of the nation's credibility and the reliability of American intelligence." And President Bush "owes the nation more than a brushoff on these matters."
Bush again relied on "his most well-worn buzzwords" yesterday, says "The New York Times." The president and his advisers "obviously still believe that the constant repetition of several simplistic points will hypnotize the American people into forgetting the original question."
THE WASHINGTON POST:
A "Washington Post" editorial says Bush's news conference yesterday offered reporters an opportunity "to ask more substantive questions than they can during the [photo opportunity] sessions to which their contact with Mr. Bush is often limited."
Both "[the] White House and the public would benefit from more frequent and regular exchanges."
Bush said he was focused on two primary issues: national security, specifically the war on terror, and the economy, in particular creating more jobs.
"His call for patience and his pledge of steadfastness overseas were heartening," says the "Post." Bush pledged to complete the U.S. missions in both Afghanistan and Iraq. He made clear that the United States "is committed to leaving Iraq freer and more peaceful than before and that he understands such a transformation will take time."
But Bush's "pleas for patience on the economy evoke less sympathy," the paper says. His responses yesterday "showed that he still has only one remedy for any economic ill -- tax cuts." While at times tax cuts can stimulate the economy, the paper predicts that in this case such cuts "will inflict huge damage on the Treasury -- and ultimately place a drag in the economy -- long after the effects of the recession have passed."
FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE ZEITUNG:
The "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" today discusses the Turkish Parliament's approval on 24 July of a controversial bill granting partial amnesty to Kurdish militants. The paper says Islamic forces in Turkey have long sought to ease tensions with the Kurdish minority. But although the amnesty is a conciliatory gesture to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), its leader, Abdullah Ocalan, and other top figures will not be freed under the armistice. Ocalan is currently serving a life sentence.
The main reason for the amnesty, says the commentary, is to inspire the Kurds to withdraw from northern Iraq, where they have encamped. It remains to be seen whether this ploy will work, the paper says.
Turkey has much to gain by settling this issue, for its people resent the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. More importantly, Washington welcomes the clearance of Kurdish camps to ensure stability in northern Iraq. Moreover, settling the issues moves Ankara closer to membership in the European Union.
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE:
Writing in "The Wall Street Journal Europe," Ilan Berman of the American Foreign Policy Council says "behind the smiles" of the last summit between U.S. President George W. Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Washington and Moscow are "increasingly deadlocked" over what to do about Iran's alleged nuclear ambitions and its "ambitious" regional agenda. The White House has expressed growing concern over Iran's alleged attempts to acquire nuclear capability. But strong Russian-Iranian ties may complicate any moves Washington might hope to make with respect to Tehran.
Berman says Moscow-Tehran ties have become "an important hedge against U.S. hegemony in the Middle East, and a powerful tool for Russia to regain influence among the new states of Central Asia."
Nuclear cooperation is just one example of their partnership. In addition to Russian aid in developing the nuclear reactor at Bushehr, Moscow has provided Tehran with "critical atomic know-how" and helped Iran develop ballistic missiles. Berman says, "With this kind of help, Iran is virtually guaranteed to become a nuclear power by the end of the decade, and possibly much sooner."
"Capitalizing on its commerce with Moscow," Berman says Tehran has increased its military presence in vital Gulf shipping lanes; acquired missile boats and battle cruisers; and has reportedly "begun deploying significant numbers of missiles along its southern coastline."
Berman says the U.S. will soon have to deal with Iran's rising ambitions. And Washington's success in this endeavor will rely on "severing the relationship" between Tehran and Moscow, its "chief broker."
In his weekly column in "Die Welt," Michael Stuermer looks at the situation in North Korea 50 years after the armistice agreement signed on 27 July 1953. The armistice established a tremulous framework that left the devastated Korean peninsula neither at peace nor war.
Stuermer sees the situation in the Koreas as "the Cold War that never ended." He says "either there will be a new balance of power in the Far East between the U.S. and China, including new rules for the handling of nuclear weapons, or the world will experience new fireworks."
The world has become inured to the situation on the Korean peninsula. In the South, a blossoming and an opening, and in the North, stagnation. Periodically, the North threatens the South while the South pursues a "sunshine policy" toward the North.
Stuermer looks at the prospects for the future, saying, "It seems a new constellation is on the rise in Western policy. Europe is joining the U.S. in its firm stance on nuclear nonproliferation."
In this respect, Stuermer sees trans-Atlantic unity. British Prime Minister Tony Blair "could essentially represent the entire Western world in Peking, while China is doing all it can to put a brake on North Korea, if necessary by stopping oil supplies. It is possible that the nuclear crisis on the 38th parallel is serving as a lesson in statesmanship."
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE:
In "The Wall Street Journal Europe," Matthew Kaminski says that although the debate over war with Iraq divided NATO members, the aftermath of the controversy has served to rejuvenate the alliance. Europe recognizes anew that NATO is "the only effective multilateral security organization, and a prized link with America." The United States, now "struggling to bring order in Iraq, [is] aware that permanent allies can often better keep the peace and rebuild nations."
But the NATO of the past was largely a defensive mechanism, a force designed to react to a threat from the Soviet Union. "Western powers can't wait for today's threats -- terrorism, loose nukes and biological weapons, rogue dictators and states -- to come to them like Soviet tanks rolling through the Fulda Gap," Kaminski says. Wise investments must be made in specific areas, in modernizing and restructuring NATO's already copious forces.
"The other big change will be in realigning America's own military posture" in Europe. The U.S. "doesn't need 100,000 [troops] in Germany anymore. The action in the wider Europe long ago shifted [toward] the Caucasus, the Middle East, and South Asia. The logical response would be to put troops closer to zones of instability."
Kaminski says the U.S. has shown that "it can win wars alone or through ad hoc coalitions. But as a permanent alliance, NATO offers a cheaper and effective way to nation-building."
Ultimately, he says, "any alliance is as much as its members want it to be."
THE MOSCOW TIMES:
Independent defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer in "The Moscow Times" discusses the announcement this week by Russian President Vladimir Putin that the reform of the military and related ministries is drawing to an end.
"After the demise of the Soviet Union, Russia did not demilitarize or seriously cut the overall number of military personnel," Felgenhauer says. "The power ministries continue to be totally secretive and their activities remain out of the public's reach. Now it's clear that Putin does not want to change this situation."
Felgenhauer says when Putin meets with Western leaders, he often emphasizes "the need for partnership and integrating Russia with the West." But "[inside] Russia, Putin emphasizes his desire to re-create and reinforce" a great Soviet-style military machine. Felgenhauer says these two faces of Putin seem to contradict each other.
It is now clear "that the Kremlin wants Western investments and technology to refurbish Russia's economy and double GDP, so that it will have money to re-arm and re-create a Soviet-style global military machine that could in the future threaten the West." Felgenhauer says this strategy "was successfully employed by Josef Stalin in the 1930s."
And Putin appears to have similar ambitions of an eventual Russian military renaissance.
In a contribution to the British "Guardian," Isabel Hilton says, "More than 18 months after the collapse of the Taliban regime, there is a remarkable consensus among aid workers, NGOs and UN officials that the situation [in Afghanistan] is deteriorating." And this deterioration may be a "direct consequence" of coalition policy, Hilton says.
"Some 60 aid agencies have issued a joint statement pleading with the international community to deploy forces across Afghanistan to bring some order." But many already fear "that it is too late. Even if the political will existed, foreign troops may no longer be in a position to restore order."
The funds promised to Afghanistan for reconstruction "have been slow to arrive and less than promised, but aid agencies argue that the most urgent problems are not primarily a question of money. [What] is needed is a fundamental change in the power structure."
Many regional warlords are considered allies of the international coalition in Afghanistan. But these warlords control "private armies, raise private funds [and] pursue private interests." And their considerable power threatens the legitimacy of Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai. But the warlords continue "to be supported, on grounds of security, by both the British and the U.S. governments."
Local warlords control the roads, exact tolls, and are bought off politically by funds from the government in Kabul. But Hilton says, "At no stage of this dismal process do funds trickle down to the people of Afghanistan."
(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba contributed to this report.)