Several media items today comment on U.S. President George W. Bush's State of the Union address last night, in which he defended several of his foreign policy decisions over the past year and, "unsurprisingly, gave himself high marks," as "The New York Times" puts it. But the paper says while there have been some achievements, the year of war in Iraq "and stubborn unilateralism on issues ranging from the use of military force to environmental policy and trade have dominated and strained America's relationships with most of the rest of the world."
It is too early to make final conclusions about the Iraq campaign, the paper says. But Bush's "decision to engage American forces so heavily without reliable intelligence, real international backing, legitimate United Nations authority or serious postwar planning has exacted a high price, for which he did not account [in] his State of the Union address."
This week, Washington is "finally asking the UN to help smooth the transition to democracy and ensure international legitimacy. But that decision [followed] nearly a year of rudely ignoring UN procedures, undermining the authority of the UN and ignoring some of America's most important allies."
The New York-based daily adds that "while the White House has focused its attention on Iraq, other compelling and dangerous crises have been more or less put on hold, at potentially grave risk." The paper says the "abrupt" shift of attention to Iraq has left the central government in Kabul ruling over little more than the capital, allowed the Mideast peace process to freeze into stalemate and seen North Korea make incremental gains with its weapons programs.
THE DAILY TELEGRAPH:
Britain's "Daily Telegraph" says U.S. efforts "to steer Iraq towards democracy are in a state of extraordinary confusion." Washington's preference for a gradual approach to elections and establishing a broadly representative Iraqi government is being challenged by the demands of Shi'a leader Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who is calling for direct elections. Tens of thousands of his Shi'a supporters demonstrated in Baghdad this week in support of his stance. Now, ironically, the very nation that claims to be "bringing democracy to the Middle East finds itself fighting a rearguard action against a Muslim cleric pushing for faster progress in that direction."
The U.S. administration has now turned to the United Nations in the hope that "its involvement, and a broadening of the franchise for elections to the transitional body, will persuade Ayatollah Sistani to moderate his demands." But the UN, until now relegated to "a subordinate role by Washington in Iraq, is reluctant to re-engage without being given greater authority. It is also concerned about the continuing lack of security." And whether the world body's involvement will be enough to assuage Shi'a concerns remains open to question, the paper says.
THE MOSCOW TIMES:
In a contribution to the English-language "Moscow Times" daily, independent political analyst Alexander Lukin says that President Vladimir Putin's "main aim" in Russia is apparently to "restore the power of the centralized bureaucracy."
The Putin administration's program includes restoring Kremlin control over Chechnya, undermining the oligarchs' empires, and "the extermination of all independent political parties." Putin is not trying to create the rule of law as he says, but an "all-powerful centralized state apparatus."
And this, says Lukin, "entails the curtailment of such quasi-democratic institutions [as] a relatively free press and elections, [and] a somewhat independent judicial system." If this process is not halted, he says, an "increasingly strict authoritarian regime will emerge in Russia."
Perhaps Putin believes that "a powerful bureaucracy is the key to economic growth," Lukin muses. But he says the more likely scenario for the economy is stagnation, "which has always accompanied absolute bureaucratic power in Russia." He predicts that such economic inertia would quickly lead to political crisis.
And Putin's strategy may ultimately backfire, Lukin says. "Having taken full control of the [parliament], the government, the regions, the parties and the media, the president has removed all potential scapegoats. From now on it will be extremely difficult for Putin to shift the blame for a dip in the standard of living or any other crisis."
From now on, Lukin says, "every broken water pipe will have a direct impact on the president's own popularity. His current sky-high poll numbers should fool no one."
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE:
Writing in "The Wall Street Journal Europe," Haytham al-Husseini, a Baghdad-based journalist with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, calls for the establishment of an Iraqi-run press to cover news events in the country. Some Arab television stations have a clear bias, he says: "They want the American project here to fail, stopping the development of a new Iraq, no matter how mush instability and bloodshed we Iraqis must suffer."
Al-Husseini says these Arab-language TV broadcasters "use Egyptian, Lebanese and other non-Iraqi commentators to tell us what's happening in our own country. They use words like 'collaborator' to refer to Iraqis who work with the [U.S.-led] coalition, and 'resistance' to identify people who we believe to be more like saboteurs."
Instead, says al-Husseini, "We need news with an Iraqi perspective -- both for us at home, and to communicate our point of view to others in the Arab world and beyond."
One Iraqi station, al-Iraqiya, is the main news source for 36 percent of Iraqis who do not have access to satellite dishes and foreign networks like al-Jazeera or al-Arabiyah. But the station has been suffering from poor management, a lack of editorial independence, and the mass exodus of an underpaid staff.
Now, al-Iraqiya's parent company, the U.S.-funded Iraqi Media Network, has announced plans "to bring al-Iraqiya's news broadcasts up to an international standard."
Al-Husseini writes: "I hope part of that plan will see the inclusion of Iraqi journalists who have appropriate international experience in broadcasting. I also hope the plan will include the financial resources and editorial independence needed to turn al-Iraqiya into a real success story."
Writing in "Eurasia View," Central Asia and Caucasus analyst Wojciech Bartuzi discusses recent moves by the leader of Georgia's semi-autonomous Adjaria province, Aslan Abashidze, and the simmering unrest caused by his autocratic rule. As a supporter of ousted Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze, Abashidze threatened to boycott the 4 January elections that followed the longtime leader's forced resignation. Eventually, Abashidze contented himself with declaring a state of emergency shortly following the election of President Mikheil Saakashvili, who has made clear his intention of re-establishing Tbilisi's control over all Georgian territory. But author Bartuzi says Abashidze's "insistence on grasping power has raised fears that his regime will not end as peacefully as Shevardnadze's did."
Abashidze has created a regional government that has him as the head of "the province's nonexistent military"; occasionally, he visits foreign capitals like a head of state. After Shevardnadze stepped down, these activities drew criticism from within the Georgian government, with the deputy justice minister, Gigi Ugulava, calling for the end of "double power" in Adjaria.
On 23 January, protesters in the Adjar village of Gonio demanded Abashidze's resignation and tried to hang the flag of the Georgian republic from government buildings. The Kmara (Enough) student movement and Our Adjaria supporters are making clear their intention to repeat Georgia's "Rose Revolution" in Adjaria.
"Growing internal dissatisfaction with his stance toward new Georgian authorities and with his authoritarian regime may finally result in [toppling] Abashidze," Bartuzi writes. But some observers "fear, however, that Abashidze would not resign on his own and his fall from power in Batumi could be bloody."
Writing in the "Miami Herald," Daniel Sneider says the U.S. military "is in the midst of one of the most massive movements of troops since World War Two." But one small development within this mass deployment has particularly alarmed close observers, he says: the mobilization of 8,000 troops from the Hawaii-based 25th Infantry Division to posts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
These troops are normally designated for use in the case of a war on the Korean peninsula, Sneider points out. And their deployment in other theaters suggests that the United States is now leaving "a very thin line of defense" in the Pacific. This move "will not pass unnoticed by North Korea, which could read it as a sign that the United States is too tied down in Iraq to handle another crisis."
Sneider suggests that the focus on Iraq could have serious implications for other trouble spots. The 25th Infantry's deployment "doesn't mean that the United States could not eventually fight and win a war in Korea," he says. But it does highlight the extent to which the U.S. Army is stretched by the war in Iraq. However, he acknowledges that many would argue advances in military technology and efficiency have diminished the overall need for ground troops.
Nevertheless, says Sneider, "It is time to realize the cost of war in Iraq is not only measured in the tens of billions spent there or the lives being lost every day. It is the price of having put too much of our resources in the wrong place."