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Western Press Review: Bush's Foreign Policy Challenges

Prague, 9 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentary focuses on a range of topics today, emphasizing U.S. foreign policy, Russian politics, the Cyprus conflict and Thailand's elections.


The Wall Street Journal Europe, in a commentary by George Melloan, praises U.S. President-elect George Bush's selection of foreign policy advisers and cabinet officers, noting: "Few presidents have fielded a better national security team than the one chosen by George W. Bush." The paper continues: "It's a good thing Mr. Bush will be backed by heavyweights, because he is going to need them. After eight years of Bill Clinton's ad hoc, photo-op conduct of foreign policy there are a lot of unaddressed security shortcomings, some of them potentially life-threatening. The U.S. is badly in need of serious strategic thought and better management of the military and diplomatic tools necessary to implement that thinking. Mr. Clinton has dabbled in just about every trouble spot on earth, usually with little effect, while meanwhile reducing the share of the federal budget devoted to foreign and military policy."


Writing for The Los Angeles Times, Robert Hunter, a senior adviser at the Rand Corporation, agrees that many in Bush's future team come with weighty credentials. But he cautions against quick policy reversals, warning that many incoming administrations, in their eagerness to prove their mettle, have blundered: "President-elect George W. Bush has now unveiled his core national security team, a high-powered group with a record of strong views and a desire to get going. Viewed from experience, however, there are two words of advice at the start of the new administration: 'Go slow.' The last half-century is littered with foreign policy mistakes made by new administrations in their earliest days: John Kennedy's Bay of Pigs; Richard Nixon's missteps on Vietnam; Jimmy Carter's policies on human rights and energy; Ronald Reagan's high rhetorical posture on terrorism; and Bill Clinton's acceptance of the 'midnight intervention' in Somalia from outgoing President George Bush."


One of the issues the new Bush administration should focus on, according to The New York Times, is the nuclear test ban treaty. The Republican-led U.S. Senate refused to ratify the international treaty 15 months ago -- a move which the paper says "set back American efforts to discourage additional countries from developing nuclear weapons." The paper urges Bush to campaign for Senate ratification, noting that his respected Secretary of State-designee, Colin Powell, has already indicated his willingness to push the issue. The paper writes: "The treaty serves American interests by committing other countries to follow Washington's example and forgo nuclear tests. Without tests, countries that lack nuclear weapons cannot develop reliable ones and nations that already have the bomb cannot significantly upgrade their arsenals. The treaty also establishes new international verification procedures for detecting nuclear explosions that would supplement those Washington already uses."


France's Liberation agrees and the paper also calls attention to Bush's support for a space-based national missile defense shield. Georges Le Guelte, research director at the Paris-based IRIS foreign policy institute, writes in a commentary for the paper: "In order to demonstrate the necessity of this new weapon, the Americans maintain that in 5-10 years countries such as North Korea, Iraq or Iran will have intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear, chemical or biological weapons." Le Guelte acknowledges that this is a possibility but he argues that the best way to combat this threat is by mutual cooperation among the United States, Europe and Russia, using existing means such as the non-proliferation treaty. According to him, by embarking on a unilateral missile-defense program, the United States will destabilize the foundation of a system which seeks to achieve what Washington professes to want: "The Russians say that if the United States back out of the ABM treaty, signed in 1972, which forbids the two signatories from deploying a national anti-missile defense covering their territories, they will themselves back out of arms-export accords and will thus be able to export any type of sensitive equipment to any country. The two old superpowers seem no longer to trust the two policies that have assured global security for half a century: deterrence -- one of the elements which allowed the avoidance of an armed conflict between the United States and Russia and non-proliferation, which has prevented 20 to 25 countries from obtaining nuclear weapons to this day."


One of the Bush administration's main challenges will be how to manage U.S. relations with Russia. The Wall Street Journal Europe carries a commentary by former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, in which the chess legend revokes his previous endorsement of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The commentary is entitled: "I Was Wrong About Putin." Kasparov writes that a year ago, he harbored hopes that Putin would "strengthen democracy inside Russia, fight corruption and level the curves of (former President Boris) Yeltsin's foreign policy." But Kasparov says this was "wishful thinking." He continues: "Mr. Putin has had every advantage a new president could wish for. His public approval rating reminds us of the euphoric early days of the Yeltsin Kremlin. The staggering devaluation of the ruble after the default of August 1998 gave a boost to Russia's heavily export-oriented economy. And high oil prices have created a hard-currency cushion not seen by any post-communist Russian government. And yet this huge credit was wasted. Mr. Putin's KGB roots have informed a style of governance that is neither reformist nor particularly democratic. The common thread in his domestic and foreign policies is a trading on fears -- the fears of Russians that their country is under attack from hostile forces (Chechens, NATO or free-marketeers), and the fears of Westerners that if not for a strong, pragmatic leader, Russia will again become unstable and aggressive. Instead of beating the real hostile forces in Russia -- corruption, ignorance and a bloated state -- Mr. Putin has cleverly changed the rules of the game."

Kasparov calls special attention to what he says is the "political nature" of the Russian prosecutor-general's moves to have media tycoon Vladimir Gusinsky extradited from Spain to stand trial on embezzlement charges. Kasprov writes: "The fate of the owner of Media-most, the largest independent media group in Russia, may well play a decisive role in the struggle for freedom of speech in Mr. Putin's Russia....With presidential promises of stability and prosperity increasingly contradicted by the stern conditions of life in Russia, independent media sources remain the only hope for our young but already emaciated democracy to survive. State-controlled television and press deflect the horrors of the Chechen war, police brutality, corruption and the squalor of daily life in well-honed, Orwellian language. In this climate, Mr. Gusinsky's case becomes an important part of the overall success of Mr. Putin's strategy."


Turning to Cyprus, the Wall Street Journal Europe carries a commentary by two former U.S. diplomats who say it is time for the EU to step into the dispute in a more decisive manner. Morton Abramowitz, former U.S. ambassador to Turkey, and James Wilkinson, former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state, write: "The EU apparently expects the lure of EU membership will induce the Turks to settle Cyprus on lines proposed by the United Nations, while Turkey hopes the EU will come to appreciate that the UN approach is too flawed for Turks to accept. The continuing failure to bridge this gap impedes reunification of Cyprus and burdens EU-Turkish relations. The EU instead should be using its muscle more profitably. For starters, it should stimulate more-promising Cyprus peace negotiations by requiring that both Cypriot sides dismantle the anachronistic "Iron Curtain" dividing the island...With both Cyprus and Turkey in the EU membership queue, it is the EU -- perhaps only the EU -- that can change the current dreary outlook for a Cyprus settlement."


Finally, the landslide victory in Thailand's general elections by the populist Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) party, led by tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra, prompts Britain's Financial Times to ponder the fate of Asia's nascent democracies. The paper writes: "Those Asian pundits who argue that democracy is an inappropriate Western import must be smirking at the political mess that has resulted from the region's latest elections. The most recent presidential ballots in the Philippines and Indonesia have thrown up weak leaders incapable of tackling their nations' troubles. The Thai electorate has just voted for a party headed by Thaksin Shinawatra, a telecommunications magnate who has been indicted by the country's anti-corruption commission. His victory means that democracy is on trial across Asia. In many cases it would appear to have been found wanting. The 'Asia-is-different' school of political science would say this is all too predictable. In politically immature societies still suffering from the social aftershocks of Asia's financial crash, poor, fractious and largely ignorant electorates will all too often elect populist politicians who promise the world."

The paper continues: "The Thai people have punished the courageously reformist government of Chuan Leekpai and taken a punt on the mercurial businessman Mr. Thaksin, who has implausibly promised to be both lavish with his spending commitments and generous with his tax cuts....But democracy is about more than just swapping personnel. It is about writing clear constitutions, developing responsible courts, enforcing the rule of law and fostering open debate. Thailand has made commendable progress in all these areas. Its people must hope that the institutional processes prove stronger than ephemeral personalities."