Prague, 26 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Some of the topics at issue in the press today include NATO priorities in the Black Sea-South Caucuses region; British Prime Minister Tony Blair's visit to Libya; shifting U.S. interests in Central Asia; and the ongoing testimony in the United States regarding intelligence failures that may have contributed to the failure to prevent the attacks of 11 September 2001.
THE NEW YORK TIMES
Two items in the New York-based daily discuss the defensiveness with which the White House has responded to criticisms that it did not take the threat of terrorism seriously before the 11 September attacks on the United States.
Former presidential counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke alleges in a new book ("Against All Enemies") that not only was Al-Qaeda not a focus of the administration's threat assessments, but that even after the 2001 attacks, the White House sought to focus on Iraq.
Bob Herbert of "The New York Times" says the administration focused on the wrong war. "The president wanted war with Iraq, and ultimately he would have his war. The drumbeat for an invasion of Iraq in the aftermath of the [Al-]Qaeda attack was as incessant as it was bizarre," he writes. The United States "never pursued Al-Qaeda with the focus, tenacity and resources it would expend -- and continues to expend -- on Iraq. The war against Iraq was sold [as] something that was good for us. The administration and its apologists went out of their way to create the false impression that Saddam [Hussein] and Iraq were somehow involved in the September 11 attacks, and that he was an imminent threat to the U.S."
Herbert says former adviser Clarke "has been consistently right on the facts, and the White House and its apologists consistently wrong. Which is why the White House is waging such a ferocious and unconscionable campaign of character assassination against Mr. Clarke."
In an editorial today, "The New York Times" also comments on the defensive campaign the U.S. administration is waging against Clarke. It says U.S. President George W. Bush and his aides are "so preoccupied with defending his image as a can-do commander in chief that it has no energy left to engage the legitimate questions that have been raised by Mr. Clarke and by others who have appeared before the independent 9/11 commission."
The administration is "so thin-skinned and defensive" that it is unable to take part in any serious discussion of how to confront the threat of terrorism. The paper compares the White House reaction to childish "name-calling," adding that Bush appears "far more interested in undermining Mr. Clarke's credibility than in addressing the heart of his critique" -- intelligence failures that preceded the 11 September attacks.
A commentary in the London-based "The Independent" discusses British Prime Minister Tony Blair's meeting yesterday with Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, whom the paper calls "the Arab world's most eccentric and unpredictable leader."
The prime minister is correct in his assertion that "there is real cause for rejoicing" in Libya's decision to relinquish its quest for banned arms and join in Western-led antiterrorism efforts, it says. "However distasteful to the families of those murdered, an engagement and reconciliation with Libya that leads to the admission of guilt and compensation is better than continued isolation of the North African country."
However, "The Independent" also acknowledges the symbolism of Blair's decision to meet with a dictator with "so much blood on his hands." Gadhafi, it says, "still locks up his opponents and pursues close relations with some of the most unpleasant and destructive regimes in Africa. For a small country with a low population, the number of citizens locked up and tortured puts [Gadhafi] pretty near the top of repressive regimes."
Ultimately, Britain is right to pursue relations with Libya, for engagement "is more productive than invasion." Nevertheless, the message this meeting may send to the Middle East could be that, "in the new world of terror, we are abandoning the ethical concerns which the prime minister so proudly proclaimed when he came to power."
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE
In a contribution to the European edition of "The Wall Street Journal," Vladimir Socor of the Washington-based Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies says NATO must renew its focus on the Black Sea-South Caucasus region.
The countries of the Euro-Atlantic community's "eastern doorstep," from Ukraine and Moldova to Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia are "weak and vulnerable states. Most of them are riven by local armed conflicts, undermined by corruption and organized crime, and have been targeted by the Kremlin for reincorporation in its sphere of dominance."
The Black Sea-South Caucasus vicinity must therefore be "anchored" to the Euro-Atlantic system by ensuring regional security.
Socor writes: "Turning this region into a Euro-Atlantic priority makes sense geopolitically, economically, and strategically." The Black Sea and the South Caucasus will soon form the boundaries of Europe. Azerbaijan and Georgia provide a transit route for Caspian energy to Western markets, as well as an access corridor for Western forces into Central Asia and the Middle East.
To ensure a "secure and stable" neighborhood in the South Caucasus, Socor says "a proactive, coordinated Euro-Atlantic approach to peace-support missions and conflict-resolution" is called for.
And a new debate on wider NATO priorities is necessary, for the alliance today "seems to have relegated the Black Sea-South Caucasus region to the bottom of peace-support priorities or even to have excluded it altogether."
In a commentary in "Eurasia View," Stephen Blank of the U.S. Army War College discusses the evolving U.S. military strategy in Central Asia.
It is looking increasingly likely that Washington will seek to establish a permanent presence in the region, he says. And this could cause friction with regional powers Russia -- which views Central Asia as its sphere of influence -- as well as China.
Bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan were established in the wake of the 11 September 2001 attacks to support U.S. operations in Afghanistan. To assuage the fears of Moscow and Beijing, "U.S. political and military leaders indicated that American forces would stay only as long as the regional terrorism threat remained."
But it now appears that the United States is looking "to be prepared for future strategic contingencies in Asia," says Blank. Washington has been strengthening military ties with Japan, the Southeast Asian nations and Australia, and there has been talk of a regional organization for collective security -- an "Asian NATO."
But Blank says it may be difficult to establish a new U.S. military posture in Asia: "Even if U.S. military planners can overcome Chinese and Russian opposition, it is no sure thing that U.S. taxpayers will be willing to sustain the financial burden of maintaining operating sites."
In a comment in "Le Figaro," Alexandrine Bouilhet, writing from Brussels, says Europe is hard-pressed to show any originality in its own war on terrorism.
The heads of state of the 25 EU current and accession members meeting in the Belgian capital adopted a resolution on 25 March declaring a coordinated, EU-wide campaign against terrorism.
The declaration "carefully avoids employing the warlike terms of the American administration," she says. But in the details of the measures it envisions, the issue of security is primary.
While the document does not attempt to compete with the measures set up by the United States in the wake of the 11 September attacks, Europe nevertheless cannot escape from a certain replication, Bouilhet says.
The "solidarity clause" of the declaration -- that in the event of an attack on one state, all EU members will come to the common defense -- directly mirrors NATO's Article 5.
The ministers also designated their own counterterrorism chief, a European "Mr. Terrorism" who Bouilhet says is a "pale imitation" of Washington's own Tom Ridge, head of the Department of Homeland Security.
But little progress was made on the controversial idea of creating a "European CIA" (Central Intelligence Agency), she says. In spite of persistent calls from some nations, the bloc decided to continue to work bilaterally when it comes to sharing sensitive information.