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Western Press Review: Missile Defense, The Middle East, Chornobyl

Prague, 7 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Missile defense and last weekend's U.S.-Russian summit in Moscow continue to draw Western press commentary today. But writers also turned their attention to Middle East politics, the Chernobyl power plant in Ukraine, and Kosovo.


An editorial in today's New York Times points out that Washington and Moscow are not the only protagonists in the current debate about missile defense. The paper writes, "Many Europeans fear that American plans to build a limited national shield could unravel the treaty system that restrains the Russian and American nuclear arsenals and thereby unleash a dangerous new arms race."

The paper says Putin moved swiftly this week to fan European concerns. Just hours after Clinton left Moscow on Sunday, Putin was in Rome promoting his new alternative to the U.S. plan, a jointly operated system meant to protect Europe as well as Russia and the U.S. by intercepting hostile missiles shortly after launch. The paper says the technical details of the plan have yet to made out and that its main significance at this time is political. In the editorial's words, "Mr. Putin hopes he can play to Europe's chronic uneasiness about American intentions to thwart or delay Washington's proposed missile defense system."

The editorial says that any potential the missile defense issue has for dividing Europe from the U.S. would evaporate if Russia and the U.S. could agree on amending the ABM treaty to accommodate a limited American shield. It says that such an agreement does not seem realistic at present and that the Clinton administration therefore needs to consult more closely with its European allies. "It should also try to allay the concerns of China," says the NYT, "which understandably worries that an American system designed to knock down a handful of North Korean missiles could negate Beijing's small missile force as well."

The paper backs the idea of a missile defense system, saying that North Korea, Iran and Iraq may soon be able to launch nuclear armed missiles against the U.S. But the paper cautions that no such system should be built until its technology has been proven and its purposes thoroughly discussed with Russia, China, and America's main European allies.


A highly anticipated meeting between North and South Korean leaders is slated for next week. Aidan Foster-Carter writes in today's International Herald Tribune that U.S. concerns over North Korea's missile threat are not likely to be high on the agenda between North Korean leader Kim Jong II and South Korean President Kim Dae Jung.

Foster-Carter is a research fellow in modern Korea at Leeds University. He says that the historic inter-Korea meeting has raised U.S. and Japanese fears that their own security-led agenda will not be high on Kim Dae Jung's list of priorities. Missiles matter, Foster-Carter says, but they are not the key to the inter-Korean summit meeting. Now is not the time for Tokyo and Washington to insist that Kim Dae Jung pack their agendas in his briefcase for the meeting in Pyongyang.

Foster-Carter writes: "American missile obsessions have more to do with domestic politics in an election year than any proven threat from Pyongyang. Those rooting for the hugely expensive missile defense shield need an enemy. North Korea fits the bill."

He says that the U.S. and Japan should trust their Korean ally and Kim Dae Jung's sunshine policy with the North to deal with its missile threat. He says that South Korean companies are poised to make major investments in the North. Even modest spending could quickly create what Foster-Carter calls "a critical mass of mutual interests that it would be suicidal for Pyongyang to risk destroying." This, he says, has to be a much better insurance against North Korean aggression than putting too much weight on missile defenses.


In a commentary in the Jerusalem Post, writer Moshe Zak says Clinton clutched at the easy agreements in Russia, such as to destroy plutonium, "while leaving the most complex issues in the bottom drawer, or in the freezer." Zak says this shows the Israelis cannot expect the U.S. to pressure Russia on its aid to Iran.

In Zak's words: "The improvement in relations between Washington and Moscow, as displayed in the Clinton-Putin summit, could inspire hope for increased chances of persuading Russia to stop supplying Iran with both scientists and raw materials which will eventually give it nuclear capability. But this hope has not yet materialized." Instead, a recent Putin decree allows Russia to sell nuclear materials to any country -- including Iran -- that does not have nuclear weapons.

Zak says Russia, in its dealings with Israel, has been playing up the brutality of the Chechen fighters. But he warns: "The Russians can't expect understanding from the West for their problems with Chechen terrorism while simultaneously feeding the snake of Iranian terrorism. And it would be reasonable," he continues, "if the West began to treat the Iranian threat with greater alertness. Statements by 'experts' on Iran about the country's internal conflict sometimes obscure the fact that when it comes to spreading fanatic terrorism, there has been no change in Tehran."


Also on the Middle East, the Chicago Tribune runs a commentary today by Hugh Dellios that says Israel's pullout from south Lebanon may signal, in his words, "a dramatic change in Israel's sense of security, one that could have a profound impact on the Mideast peace process."

Dellios writes that many Israelis believe the withdrawal was not a sign of weakness but "evidence of a transformation from their historic preoccupation with national survival toward a post-Zionist sense of strength and confidence that helped deem the occupation unnecessary." And he says the withdrawal may make the Israeli public more receptive to final deal this year over the proposed creation of Palestinian state next door.

Dellios also adds that most of Israel sees the withdrawal as the correction of an erroneous policy that sacrificed many young men.


Britain's Financial Times runs an editorial today that says Ukraine's decision to close the Chornobyl power plant is most welcome. The paper says, "The announcement of the December 15 closure date, made during a visit by U.S. President Bill Clinton, is good news for millions of Europeans, including many Ukrainians, who have lived in fear of Chornobyl since the 1986 explosion."

The paper says the Group of Seven industrialized countries and Russia should continue to back a pledge to lend Ukraine close to $2 billion to build new nuclear reactors. But it says that Ukraine must first do more to show it needs the reactors and can use them efficiently: "This it cannot do without radical reform, both in energy and in the economy as a whole."

The FT says power cuts in Ukraine are frequent, "but there is no way of knowing whether they are due to fuel shortages, plant failures, corruption or sheer mismanagement." It says that before Ukraine can receive power aid, it must introduce transparency, proper regulation, and market-based pricing.


As the one-year anniversary of the Kosovo war approaches, the Wall Street Journal Europe runs an editorial today welcoming the findings of war-crimes prosecutor Carla del Ponte, who said on Friday that NATO did not commit war crimes during last year's bombing of Serbia. But the paper says that it's precisely because the finding is "official" that what it calls "conspiracy theorists, reflexive America-bashers and Serb fellow travelers" will stick to their belief that the Western alliance deliberately targeted innocent civilians rather than accept the "painstakingly reached" conclusions of the international war crimes tribunal.

The paper says the truth of the investigation will "pour acid" on the notion that the West's resort to military means was on a moral par with the tactics employed by Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. It says the West was drawn into the conflict in response to Milosevic's revoking the political rights of Albanians in Kosovo and unleashing what it calls military "goons" on the province in a deliberate act of ethnic intimidation.

The paper says the specific war crimes alleged against NATO -- the bombing of a passenger train and of a civilian caravan -- were "the result of Western squeamishness, not ill-intent." NATO's air campaign, the Journal says, was an attempt to minimize the risk to its soldiers, a strategy of cowardice but hardly a war crime.

The paper says that while it is right for NATO to reconsider its actions in Kosovo and Serbia, there are new troubles brewing in the region, namely Montenegro and Belgrade. "We hope that the period of navel-gazing may now give way to renewed efforts to bring the real war criminals to book," the paper concludes.

(Susan Caskie in Prague contributed to this report.)