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Western Press Review: Bush Acknowledges Iraq's Problems, The EU's Balkan Role, And The 'Baghdad Blogger'

  • Khatya Chhor

Prague, 9 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Major dailies today continue to discuss the situation in the Middle East following the weekend resignation (6 September) of Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas. Much discussion also centers on U.S. foreign policy in Iraq in the wake of U.S. President George W. Bush's speech on 7 September, in which he said UN member nations were obligated to take a greater role in rebuilding the country. Other topics addressed today include the EU's key role in stabilizing the Balkans and what one paper calls the Kremlin's moves to "muzzle" Russian democracy. We also hear from the so-called "Baghdad blogger," Salam Pax, who in the run-up to war unintentionally became the one voice in Iraq the world was listening to.

Several items in major U.S.-based dailies discuss U.S. President George W. Bush's 7 September speech in which he warned that rebuilding Iraq would be a long, difficult process requiring commitment and sacrifice from America and the world. Bush also spoke of the "responsibility" UN member nations have to help get Iraq back on its feet.


In a piece published in today's "Washington Post," columnist David Broder says Bush's words of caution "had been pronounced previously by the leading foreign policy spokesmen in both [Democratic and Republican] parties, members of Congress and veterans of past administrations." So, Broder asks, "Why did it take so long for the commander-in-chief [Bush] to come to grips with the realities of Iraq so obvious to everyone else?"

He says that Bush finally decided to level with the American people. The U.S. president's "tone was sober, and the $87 billion request for next year's operations in Iraq and Afghanistan [was] certainly large enough to remove any illusions that this would be cheap or easy." But Broder says Bush was overdue in admitting to the difficulties and complexities involved because the president "and the Pentagon civilian chiefs could not be persuaded to abandon the rosy scenario they had anticipated" in Iraq, which envisioned "a grateful populace, [welcoming] the troops who delivered their freedom, then quickly settling their historical religious and tribal differences, embracing democracy and rapidly rebuilding their nation with the profits from their vast oil supplies." This forecast, says Broder, was "a fantasy."


Jacques Schuster in "Die Welt" comments on what he calls Mahmoud Abbas' lost battle, in which Abbas failed to establish himself within the Palestinian Authority (PA). Schuster blames PA President Yasser Arafat, who Schuster says worked behind the scenes to undermine his rival. "Arafat was never prepared to hand over the control of his security service," says Schuster. This left Abbas helpless to end the suicide attacks against Israelis.

On the other hand, Schuster writes, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is also partially responsible for the failure of the "road map." He made only a few symbolic moves to evacuate Israeli settlers from the occupied territories. Moreover, both the U.S. and Europe are to blame for their lack of support for Abbas.

Schuster says only an international peace force can ease tensions between Israel and Palestine. But now, at the beginning of the U.S. presidential election campaign, such a step is highly unlikely. "So the only solution at present is building a fence to keep the Israelis and Palestinians apart," says Schuster.


Writing in the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung," Thorsten Schmitz says "the 'road map' has landed the same way as all other plans to end the long intifada: on history's rubbish heap." The only one laughing is Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, who is celebrating a comeback. Schmitz blames Israel for wanting Mahmoud Abbas to take over from Arafat but failing to give him genuine support. Instead of helping Abbas, Israel pursued a militant policy aimed at deterring radicals. This is no solution, says Schmitz. "Palestinian society itself must deal with its terrorists to ensure a lasting end to the fighting."


An editorial in the secular "Christian Science Monitor" says ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer, came to power, "many have wondered if a return to Soviet ways was in the offing. Extreme pessimists see in his every move the death of Russian democracy. Extreme optimists say he is a democrat at heart." The paper says the truth is less clear, but notes several recent developments that may be serving to undermine Russia's fledgling democracy.

All of Russia's independent television stations have now been taken over by entities friendly to the Kremlin, effectively "silencing all critical broadcast voices." The country's most respected independent polling agency -- the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) -- is also believed to have come under Kremlin influence. As electoral campaigns were launched last week, new restrictions on the media for covering them went into effect. And the launch of a criminal investigation into Russian energy giant Yukos has raised some eyebrows, coming as it did after Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky donated money to political opponents of the Kremlin.

The "Monitor" says Russia "wants a modern economy, but its behavior creates uncertainty that drives away investors. It wants to be part of Europe and be treated as a democracy. Sooner or later, it has to start acting like one. That means leaving the press and opponents alone."


Commenting in the "Frankfurter Rundschau," Dietmar Ostermann describes U.S. President George W. Bush's 7 September speech to the American nation as a "mea culpa, Texas-style." Bush made no mention of the weapons of mass destruction that were originally cited as the reason for going to war. Nor did Bush seek to explain why Iraq has suddenly become the forefront of the antiterrorist campaign four months after he declared major combat operations in the country to be over (1 May). Ostermann says Bush did not deem it necessary to express any remorse over what has been going wrong in the country in the months after the war supposedly ended. Moreover, the appeal to the international community for help was more of an insolent order to oblige him by throwing him a rope.

And Ostermann says the questions for the future remain unanswered by Bush's speech. All that has been made clear is that the U.S. has to come to terms with the fact that the Iraqi conflict is an expensive business. "A two-figure sum in the billions for the reconstruction of Iraq is more than Afghanistan ever received," he says. "Washington has come to realize it will have to bear the brunt of the Iraqi burden alone." International help is desirable, but the U.S. is hardly likely to elicit any unwavering commitments from other nations, since few are either willing or able to lighten America's load.


An item in Britain's "Independent" says several elements in U.S. President George W. Bush's speech were "welcome," including the indication of "a readiness on the part of the U.S. to increase the role of the United Nations and accelerate the transfer of power and national sovereignty to Iraqis." But there was also "much to take exception to" that went even beyond "the deliberately misleading association he drew between the attacks of September 11 and Iraq."

Primarily, says the paper, there was "the mini-lecture to those many countries that opposed the war about their supposed obligations." In acknowledging the controversy that preceded the war, Bush said nations must not let past disagreements interfere with today's duties. He said the member states of the UN have the responsibility to do more to ensure that Iraq eventually becomes a democratic nation.

The "Independent" says "This is hardly the tone and these are hardly the words that will convince other countries to risk their troops in the inhospitable terrain of Iraq. It is also worth asking whether those foreign governments which opposed the war have any duty to help Mr. Bush in a way that could improve his chances of re-election in 2004."


In a contribution to the British "Guardian," Misha Glenny, author of a book on nationalism and war in the Balkans, says recent clashes between the Albanian National Army (ANA) and security services in northern Macedonia and south Serbia should serve as a warning. He says "unless the pressure that has built up in Kosovo since 1999 finds some controlled release soon, there is a danger it will explode."

The international community "has been 'nationbuilding' in Kosovo for four years," he says. "Certainly, violence has dropped dramatically since 1999." But the United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) "has not come close to establishing a functional society." Kosovo "has existed in constitutional limbo" since the end of the war. The province has been governed as part of Serbia and Montenegro, "but under the authority of UNMIK until the Security Council agrees upon its final status." Still to be decided is whether the province will become independent, as Kosovar Albanians wish, or remain a part of Serbia as most Serbs prefer.

Glenny says, "Without a clear idea of Kosovo's final status, it is impossible to establish a secure system of property rights and internal economic relations. Nobody will put money in because they have no guarantee that the incoming government will not confiscate their investment. This has condemned the province to a commercial life that today consists of smuggling, subsistence farming and high unemployment."

The EU has agreed that it should bear the primary responsibility for ensuring long-term stability in the Balkans, and the union "has an excellent track record in helping to reconcile and advance divided societies." But in Kosovo, the EU "appears to be asleep at the wheel." Glenny says the EU "has an opportunity to defuse the powder keg of the Balkans once and for all." The prospect of EU membership, he says, is a great tool to use in Southeastern Europe. "If Europe wants to show its vision, the Balkans could be its big chance."


In another contribution to Britain's "Guardian," the so-called "Baghdad blogger," Salam Pax, tells the story of how in the run-up to war he unintentionally became a lone voice from Iraq that was being listened to around the world. "My name is Salam Pax and I am addicted to blogs," he begins. "Blogs" is short for web logs, or public, Internet-based message boards. His blog began as a way to communicate with a friend in Jordan. But after submitting his blog address to an indexing site, thousands began being directed to his site. He says a 12 October post calling the U.S. decision to invade Iraq a "colonialist plot" resulted in a stampede of responses. "I just flicked the rant switch on, wrote for half an hour and was surprised that the world took notice."

But Pax says, "What really worried me was the people writing those e-mails were doing so as if I was a spokesman for the Iraqi people. There are 25 million Iraqis and I am just one. With the attention came the fear that someone in Iraq might actually read the blog," which could have resulted in Pax "hanging from a ceiling being asked about anti-governmental activities."

He writes: "I was sometimes really angry at the various articles in the press telling the world about how Iraqis feel and what they were doing when they were living in an isolated world. The journalists could not talk to people in the street without a Mukhabarat (Iraqi intelligence service) man standing beside them." And the questions people were asking over the Internet "became more difficult," he says. "People wanted coherence and a clear stand for or against war. All I had was doubt and uncertainty."

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