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Western Press Review: The Abiding Failure Of Mideast Policy And Vision

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 22 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- This week's bombings of UN headquarters in Iraq and a crowded Jerusalem bus have refocused attention on how the international community, particularly the United States, is handling the underlying issues in the Middle East. The pervasive security concerns in Iraq have led many on both sides of the political spectrum to question the U.S. administration's decision to send a scaled-down battalion to stabilize and rebuild Iraq without significant help from allies. A tenuous cease-fire between the Israelis and Palestinians also seems to be in tatters this week, as the killing yesterday of senior Hamas member Ismail Abu Shanab and two bodyguards prompts reprisals today in the form of mortars fired at Israeli settlements. One word seems to be recurring in reference to the week's events: failure -- of both policy and vision.


Writing in "The Washington Post," columnist E. J. Dionne bluntly asks, "Can we now please admit that the Bush administration's policies in Iraq are a terrible failure?" He says the administration of President George W. Bush relied on flawed information and wishful thinking in formulating many of its foreign policies. "The terrorist truck bomb that blew up the UN headquarters in Baghdad this week also blew up the pretensions of an arrogant strategy that assumed the United States could do nation-building on the cheap." The administration also mistakenly assumed the U.S. "needed little support from traditional allies, only a limited number of troops and relatively modest expenditures to rebuild a shattered country."

Dionne says, "It's astonishing that Bush and his advisers never seemed to take seriously the obvious possibility that many, perhaps most, Iraqis [could] be perfectly happy to have the United States get rid of their dictator and then want U.S. troops to leave immediately."

Dionne says more troops are needed in Iraq, the U.S. needs logistical help from allies, and more funds are needed to rebuild Iraq's infrastructure. He says: "Now that we have invaded Iraq, we cannot afford to let the place go to pieces. The administration can hold fast to its arrogance. Or it can acknowledge its mistakes and chart a new course."


Writing in the "Chicago Tribune," columnist Steve Chapman says U.S. President George W. Bush's record on foreign policy "is not exactly studded with triumphs. The Middle East is awash in blood from Baghdad to Jerusalem. Almost everywhere the United States is engaged, things are going from bad to worse. With each passing day, the administration looks more and more like the helpless victim of its own hubris."

The "growing disorder and resistance" in Iraq "were not an unforeseeable accident," he says. "They're the direct result of the administration's insistence on using the bare minimum force to topple Saddam Hussein." By not dedicating enough troops to nation building, Chapman says, the administration "gave free rein to diehard Baathists, Islamic zealots, embittered nationalists and even Al-Qaeda operatives."

The Bush administration's approach to another crisis, the North Korean nuclear standoff, remains "feigned nonchalance," Chapman says. And there is probably nothing Washington can do to prevent Pyongyang from developing an atomic weapon. So, Chapman asks, where has the Bush administration's policy made things better? In Afghanistan, the Taliban was successfully toppled by U.S. forces. But Chapman says that country is now "sliding into anarchy." Meanwhile, Osama bin Laden escaped U.S. forces and remains at large.

In conclusion, Chapman says Bush "has been good at winning wars. Too bad victory doesn't solve everything."


Columnist George F. Will writes in a contribution to "The Washington Post" that "Until conditions become much better, Iraq will be a newly created example of a danger newly perceived since 9/11 -- a 'failed state.' Hence it will be a vacuum into which political evil rushes."

The danger now for the U.S. administration is that President George W. Bush may believe being unyielding and "obdurate" is the right response to the challenges in Iraq. But instead, Will says, perhaps the administration should recognize that not only its intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction was wrong. The Bush administration also underestimated the number of troops that would be needed on the ground in Iraq. And Will says, to "those who say that further internationalization of the occupation of Iraq would lessen U.S. 'control,' the response is: Control -- such as it is -- should not be the grandiose U.S. objective. Neutralization of Iraq as a source of terror will be sufficient."

Some intractable global issues are not "problems to be tidily and decisively solved." Rather they are complicated "messes, to be slowly and partially ameliorated. The failure to distinguish between solvable problems and durable messes is a facet of a larger political failing," he says.


An editorial in "The New York Times" today cites U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell speaking yesterday at the UN, where the paper says he warned that "the failure of the American-sponsored Middle East peace plan could push Israelis and Palestinians over the edge of a cliff." The paper remarks that following this week's (19 August) suicide bombing in Jerusalem, "that cliff seems to be getting closer by the hour."

The paper says, "If the peace process [is] to survive, Washington needs to redouble its efforts," and both Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) must realize that blaming each other is not the answer. Abbas must deal with radical groups like Hamas accordingly, the paper says. But at the same time, Israel's assassination of Hamas leader Ismail Abu Shanab seems "counterproductive." Abbas and other Palestinian officials were also "clearly shaken" by the suicide bombing in Jerusalem and vowed to take action, the paper says. "By taking preemptive action, the Israelis not only gave Hamas an excuse to rouse its faithful to more violence, but they also undermined Mr. Abbas's plans and leadership."

"The New York Times" says Sharon "must realize that there is no alternative to Mr. Abbas, who is committed to a peaceful two-state solution. If Mr. Abbas is forced from power, it will probably be awhile before anyone else will step forward. That could be the end of the road map -- and the road -- for quite some time."


The lead story in "The Economist" this week says things in the Mideast "were not exactly running like clockwork" before the deadly events this week in the region. But this week's "atrocities in Baghdad and Jerusalem have rocked America's Middle East policy on two flanks at once." The perpetrators of the bombing of UN headquarters in Baghdad "also blew away the illusion that its American and British occupiers were close to bringing peace to post-Saddam [Hussein] Iraq. The same day's suicide bombing in Jerusalem [may] well have torn a lethal hole in the international 'road map,'" says the magazine.

But "The Economist" says in Iraq, the "basic political conditions there point to the possibility [of] a peaceful and prosperous future. In Palestine those conditions do not yet apply, and the United States needs to adjust its policy accordingly."

Washington must invest "more money, attention and ingenuity in Iraq," the magazine says. So far, "[the] Americans are not scoring high on effort or competence." But overall, "the strongest reason by far for optimism" rests on the fact that "the majority of Iraqis still want for their own country what the Americans also say they want for it: rapid economic recovery, the removal of all vestiges of the old regime, and an orderly transition to democracy."

In contrast, "for all the fine words of [U.S. President] George Bush and the 'road map' about the imminence of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, almost no Palestinians expect Israel voluntarily to give up the West Bank and Gaza to make this possible." The Palestinians must be given the hope that their own occupation will eventually end as well.


A commentary in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" today looks at the significance of the capture of "Chemical Ali," or Ali Hassan Majid, a cousin of deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and the king of spades in the American card deck of most-wanted members of the former regime. Ali has become notorious for his apparent order to launch the chemical attack that killed some 5,000 Kurds in Halabja in 1988. The paper says his capture "is a political success, but doubts are increasing as to whether the elimination and imprisonment of the murderers of the old regime will solve the military problems in Iraq."

Initially, it was important to hunt down the Ba'athists and Hussein supporters who were leading a guerrilla war against coalition forces. But ongoing terrorist attacks -- the latest coming early this week, against the UN headquarters in Baghdad -- are different. More than 3,000 Islamic fighters have entered Iraq from Iran and Syria, and the religious fundamentalist opposition seems to be on the rise. The commentary says, "obviously the terrorists do not differentiate between America and the UN, which makes the question of who should establish order in Iraq even more complicated."


Karl Grobe, writing in today's "Frankfurter Rundschau" discusses Romania's "hopes and fears" -- whose common denominator, he says, is Europe. "Europe is the hope for intellectuals and the unemployed, the power elite and minorities. It is worrisome for the middle class and farmers, industrial workers and, again, minorities."

Some sectors of society are expecting a firm establishment of rights, freedom of speech, jobs, a little prosperity, and a secure future. Others see themselves economically threatened and the end of their livelihoods. "And they all know the road to Europe is a long one."

Nevertheless, Romania's history and geography points to its essential adherence to Europe. Grobe says: "Romania's head is at home in the Western Europe of the 21st century. The feet, however, are stuck in the clay of their native country."

There is an alternative, though. For in that region near Constanza's harbor, the United States has already built an airstrip, which was used in the war against Iraq after the Turkish government refused to permit the use of its airspace.

At every supporting point on the Black Sea, Greeks, Albanians, Macedonians, Bulgarians, and Turks are building hangars, living quarters and security barriers for a few thousand U.S. troops. So perhaps, Grobe concludes: "Romania does not need Europe. It has America -- and vice versa."


Writing in France's "Liberation," columnist Marc Semo says the truck-bomb attack on UN headquarters in Baghdad was the "highlight" of increasingly frequent operations by what is being referred to as the Iraqi "resistance." Until this week, the attacks had taken the form of almost daily ambushes of U.S. soldiers or convoys, or acts of sabotage directed against oil and economic infrastructure. They aimed at creating a general climate of insecurity and blocking reconstruction.

But the attack at the UN was meant to serve as a warning to the international community, just as the United States began considering sharing some of its responsibilities in Iraq. For the past four months, he says, the UN had been an intermediary on the ground, thanks to the political acuity of special envoy to Iraq Vieira de Mello. It is this essential role of the UN as a bridge that the perpetrators of the attack wanted to destroy, he says.

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