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Western Press Review: Missile Defense, The Middle East, And AIDS

Prague, 10 July (RFE/RL) -- The failure of the latest U.S. test for the planned National Missile Defense, or NMD, system elicits commentary from both European and U.S. newspapers today. The upcoming Middle East summit between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, this week's international AIDS conference -- which opened yesterday in South Africa -- and the continuing tensions in Yugoslavia also provide fodder for editorialists.


In an editorial titled "Lucky Miss For U.S. Missile Shield," Britain's Financial Times writes: "In all logic, the test failure ought to enable [U.S. President Bill] Clinton to postpone, at the very least on technical grounds, a deployment decision that was always too serious for a lame-duck (eds: about to end his term) president to take."

But the newspaper warns that although this is what most European leaders hope for, there is a good chance the failed test will only encourage the Pentagon to redouble its efforts. In its words: "Before NMD's many critics in Russia, China, and European capitals break out their second bottles of champagne at the latest development, they should remember the tests will undoubtedly continue. The U.S. can afford them, even at 100 million dollars each. The NMD program has considerable political and industrial momentum behind it."


The Washington Post, for its part, advocates continued research on NMD. The paper writes in its editorial today: "The latest failure of the Pentagon's missile defense system in development does not alter the underlying reasons to seek such a system. One such reason was eloquently provided last week by China's Communist rulers as they argued vociferously on the other side. They did not bother to mask their rationale: China claims a right to bomb or invade the democratic country of Taiwan, and it does not want anyone to stand in its way."

The Post adds that there are other good reasons for NMD: "To protect the United States against accidental launch from Russia or elsewhere; to prevent other nations, such as North Korea or Iraq, from attacking the United States or limiting its freedom of action to defend neighboring states -- South Korea, Kuwait -- it is hard to imagine a commander in chief arguing against this kind of self-defense when it becomes technically feasible."


The Wall Street Journal Europe says in its editorial that the failure of the latest NMD test should dishearten Europeans instead of gladdening them: "You'd think all this would be cause for keen disappointment throughout Europe. NMD is, after all, a purely defensive system; it should alarm no one but rogue states -- [or rather], 'states of concern,' according to the latest U.S. State Department fashion -- such as North Korea, Iraq, and Iran, all of which have extensive missile-development programs. Indeed, just last week came reports that Iraq had carried out the eighth test of its liquid-fueled Al-Sambaed missile, meaning the U.S. doesn't have a moment to lose in developing a workable deterrent. Alas, that's not how matters are viewed by many European leaders." The paper notes that French President Jacques Chirac and German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, among others, have expressed their opposition to NMD, saying it could antagonize Russia and China. They also say it could lead to splits within the NATO alliance.

"But," the paper asks, "how much substance is there to these concerns? Hardly any," it answers. "Mr. Fischer and his ilk seem to think that if the U.S. acquires a missile shield it will be less inclined to come to the defense of its allies. That gets it exactly backwards. The U.S. is vastly more likely to take risks abroad if it doesn't stand to suffer catastrophically as a result. Recall that NMD got a political jumpstart after a Chinese general suggested that China might lob a missile at Los Angeles if the U.S. ever came to Taiwan's rescue against Communist attack. An effective NMD would obviate such threats, thus enormously increasing America's freedom to act on behalf of its allies."


An editorial in Germany's Sueddeutsche Zeitung today sharply disagrees, saying the U.S. should n-o-t pursue further work on a missile defense. "The technical knowledge," the paper says, "is hotly debated. Renowned scientists doubt that a missile defense will work in the foreseeable future."

The paper says that in addition to technical woes, the project is also a foreign policy minefield. In its words: "Russia's hoped-for agreement to a new defense treaty will not be forthcoming. The U.S.'s European partners range from irritated about the plan to openly hostile. U.S. diplomacy has hopelessly outdistanced reality and is now reaping scorn and mockery."

The Sueddeutsche Zeitung concludes with strong words: "The NMD was cooked up in the heat of the American election campaign because the candidates must demonstrate their strength in defense policy. Now the time has come for a clear statement: the cost-benefit analysis on NMD does not balance. The program is technically, politically and strategically immature. President Clinton should use his remaining political power for one last missile launch -- to shoot down the NMD."

Many Western commentators turn their attention to this week's planned Middle East summit at Camp David near Washington. With the Palestinian and Israeli leaders hoping to reach a final peace settlement by September 13, the summit is seen as a key indicator of whether this deadline has a hope of being met.


Commentator Thomas Oliphant, writing in the Boston Globe, says that the summit will be the culmination of years of effort and that much now depends on its success. As he puts it: "The present moment has been coming ever since the Israeli prime minister was elected after he appealed for a mandate to make peace. In another sense, it has been coming ever since Barak's predecessor and mentor, the late Yitzhak Rabin, decided to break through the diplomatic impasses and reach an interim agreement with [Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat seven years ago. ... The question now is whether the Palestinians can match this courage."

Oliphant is skeptical of that. He writes: "The reason the tea leaves are not auspicious this weekend is that Arafat resisted coming here. Behind his assertion that the preparations had not been thorough enough lies the question of whether he and his supporters have the will to make the same courageous move toward the Israelis that the Israelis have made toward them. With the will, ways already exist to deal with refugees, water, land, settlements, even Jerusalem; without the will, the details won't matter."


The Chicago Tribune calls on both leaders to demonstrate an equal measure of courage and fulfill Rabin's legacy: "It is high time -- in fact, way past time -- for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat to tackle the tough decisions their peoples have put off for seven years. That's how long this frustrating detente has lasted since Barak's mentor, former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, and Arafat agreed at Oslo to make historic compromises for peace and try to end a century of Mideast conflict."

The newspaper offers some concrete proposals, noting that both Israelis and Palestinians will have to make tough compromises. Its editorial says: "To succeed, it's obvious both sides must make painful concessions. They must also realize they cannot and will not get all they want. So here's a best-case scenario: Most Israelis now accept the idea of an independent Palestinian state, so Barak ought to endorse it and let Arafat declare it in some 90 to 95 percent of the West Bank. There will never be peace until Palestinians truly have a state and the right to determine their own destiny. ... In exchange," the paper continues, "Arafat must accept a real end to the conflict, not one where he declares 'peace' in English and promotes 'struggle' in Arabic. ... He will have to acquiesce to leaving major blocs of Jewish settlements in place."

On the contentious issue of Jerusalem, the paper advises: "The solution: expand its borders, let Israel annex its eastern Jewish neighborhoods and finally get international recognition of a larger Jerusalem; and give the Palestinians sovereignty over the eastern Arab districts of the city where Israelis rarely go. Let the Palestinians have their capital and their legislature, now under construction, in nearby Abu Dis, and fly their national flag over the Muslim holy sites in the walled Old City, where Islamic leaders already have control."


Denmark's Berlingske Tidende, however, in its commentary today advises against rushing things. In the words of the Danish editorial: "It is unrealistic to expect that a wide-ranging agreement can be achieved within such a short time-span, even though most of the difficult questions have already been discussed time and again. The negotiating parties -- and the international community -- would better prepare themselves for a framework agreement that gives directions but leaves the difficult issues for later. The recent history of the Middle East has shown that anything [in that region] is to be preferred to war. The same applies to the present time: prior to, during, and after Camp David."


Turning to this week's 13th International AIDS conference in Durban, South Africa, the Philadelphia Inquirer calls on participants to "avoid the blame-mongering and get to work." The paper notes that in sub-Saharan Africa today, one in every 10 adults is infected with HIV. It is estimated that between one-third and one-half of the teenagers in those countries will die of AIDS in their 20s and 30s.

Among the urgent steps the paper advocates are these: "Work locally. Have a plan. Get influential religious leaders to take the lead, along with leaders of townships, villages, tribes and clans. We must all teach together. Sidle (eds: slide past) -- with great respect -- past the taboos. Speak directly about sex. ... Change African society to give more voice to women. ... Intervene in the sex trade, the only source of money for thousands of poor people in town and country. Create an international fund of five billion dollars a year for prevention of infections. ... Make available, either free or at discount rates, life-prolonging drugs for those with fully expressed AIDS."


Britain's Financial Times also takes up the call to action, writing in its editorial today: "This week's international AIDS conference in South Africa offers a long-overdue opportunity to confront AIDS at the very heart of the pandemic. ... That is why the conference must not be allowed to degenerate into a sterile debate about its causes, but has to concentrate instead on better ways to contain it."

The paper says it is time African leaders themselves acknowledged the scope of the crisis and demonstrated leadership -- especially host country South Africa: "At the regional AIDS conference in Zambia last September, not a single head of state turned up. South Africa has been presented with an unprecedented chance to provide the continent with the political leadership it needs. It must not allow the opportunity to slip."


Finally, several papers discuss tensions in Yugoslavia, where Montenegro has been moving toward increased autonomy from its larger sister republic, Serbia. The Wall Street Journal Europe praises Montenegrin President Milo Djukanovic for his level-headedness in responding to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's hasty move to rewrite the country's constitution. The constitutional changes include reducing Montenegro's influence in the federal parliament. The paper says Djukanovic's "calls for moderation and gradualism" have for now avoided a clash. But it says this may not last, unless Western powers act decisively.

In the Journal's words: "Now it is the West's turn. It is too much to hope that Milosevic will allow Montenegro's 'creeping independence' to continue indefinitely, as this latest power-grab shows. Montenegro deserves the full-throated support of Western Europe and the U.S. in its stand against Milosevic. Only unambiguous backing -- both diplomatic and, if necessary, military -- from the West can prevent a replay of recent Balkan history in this embattled little republic."


The Washington Post also notes that up to now, in its words, "the United States and its NATO allies have pursued a strategy similar to the 'strategic ambiguity' that the United States employs toward China with regard to Taiwan. The West has offered Montenegro just enough support to give Mr. Milosevic pause about invading the republic, but has refrained from a blanket security guarantee that might embolden Montenegro to separate so definitively from Belgrade as to provoke a war."

But, the paper concludes, this policy may soon outlive its usefulness: "Mr. Milosevic's actions show how much single-minded effort he continues to devote to his own political survival, while the United States and its allies, both in Serbia and in the governments of Europe, struggles to react. Strategic ambiguity has its uses, but a policy of temporizing may eventually fall short."

(Susan Caskie in Prague and Anthony Georgieff in Copenhagen contributed to this report.)