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Western Press Review: Clinton Presidency, Russia, Depleted Uranium

Prague, 15 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- With the end of U.S. President Bill Clinton's eight years in office only five days away (20 January), Western press commentators are continuing to assess his administration's effects on the United States and the world. There is also a comment on likely changes in U.S.-Russian relations after Clinton leaves office, as well as analyses of the safety after-effects of projectile weapons using depleted uranium.


Two major U.S. dailies today and yesterday run long editorials on the Clinton presidency. The New York Times today sees good and not-so-good in Clinton's record, writing: "Clinton fatigue is a catch phrase for the public disenchantment engendered by Bill Clinton's lapses. When he failed, he failed big. First came health care and its secretive process run by the first lady, Hillary Rodham Clinton. [The] president's later fateful decision to deceive Mrs. Clinton, a grand jury and all Americans about sexual adventurism in the Oval Office was a mistake for which he alone was responsible."

"By contrast," the editorial continues, "when President Clinton achieved, it was in increments. Historians," it says, "may never discern a grand architectural edifice of achievements on the scale of [Franklin Roosevelt's] New Deal or [Lyndon Johnson's] Great Society, yet those increments add up to an impressive benchmark." Impressive, the editorial argues, particularly in the economic area where, it writes, "a string of decisions" on taxation, budget policy and public spending helped create the longest economic boom in recent U.S. history. For the paper, Clinton "has been at his best and most memorable in advocating engagement in the world in order to lift everyone's hopes for freedom and economic growth."

The editorial then notes that, "as the first post-Cold War president, Mr. Clinton had difficulty finding a theme to sum up his approach to the world. He was slow to engage," the paper says, "in part because his first two years were spent on the economy and health care. Inattention led to missteps in the Balkans and Africa. Yet the president got his footing and developed a distinctive style, and he leaves office as the most authoritative figure in international diplomacy."

The paper goes on: "He often succeeded by becoming involved personally with other leaders. The most dramatic instance was his effort to advance democracy and free markets in Russia by allying the United States with Boris Yeltsin despite the Russian president's erratic leadership. [And] Mr. Clinton's personal involvement with Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak of Israel, and with Yasser Arafat and King Hussein of Jordan, surely speeded the possibility of a settlement in the Middle East, even though a final deal has eluded him."


In its editorial yesterday, the Washington Post was less enthusiastic about the Clinton administration. The paper wrote: "Bill Clinton's eight ragged years as president included some significant accomplishments. But our overwhelming sense in looking back at them is one of disappointment at opportunities lost. There are always many reasons for missed chances, and it is easy to exaggerate the importance of any one of them," the editorial added. "Views of the Clinton presidency, as of every presidency, will change. But it seems to us that this was a president whose character betrayed his skills, and in the process betrayed his party and his politics as well."

The paper acknowledged Clinton's economic achievements, but went on to say that his foreign policy followed what it called "a steep and at times costly learning curve." Clinton "came to office promising to intervene in the Balkans, revoke China's trade privileges and admit refugees from Haiti, only to be dragged through painful reversals on all three issues. He never did formulate a coherent policy toward post-Cold War Russia or China, veering between confrontation and an ill-conceived 'strategic partnership' with Beijing, leaning heavily on a shaky Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, and playing down serious human rights abuses by both countries."

The Washington Post also said: "If the [Clinton] administration helped make parts of the world safer than they were eight years ago -- for example, by encouraging peace in Northern Ireland and by persuading three former Soviet republics to give up their nuclear weapons -- it left other dangers more inflamed. That seemed especially true in the Middle East, where Saddam Hussein remains in power and less fettered than before in his quest to rebuild his arsenal, and where Mr. Clinton's energetic peacemaking has left Israelis and Palestinians in the midst of violence."

The paper summed up: "Mr. Clinton was, and still is, an extraordinarily gifted politician. [But] he did not use those great gifts to achieve major change in American life. The record suggests to us that in the end he lacked the commitment to do so, that political considerations too often mattered more to him than substantive needs, and that his politics were self-absorbed. [On] balance," it concluded "and for all the tumult that it caused, it was an oddly superficial presidency."


The Washington Post today carries a news analysis by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser on likely changes in U.S.-Russian relations after George W. Bush becomes president Saturday. Writing from Moscow, they say: "In a sharp diplomatic course change, [Bush] will enter the Oval Office signaling a renewed emphasis on the issues of nuclear security and geopolitics that so preoccupied his father [George Bush, U.S. president from 1989 to 1993], while abandoning the Clinton administration mission to reinvent the fitful, corruption-plagued Russian economy. But at a time when [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is cracking down on the independent media and consolidating state power," the analysts add, "it may not be so simple to turn away from the internal struggle that still roils Russia's incomplete transition to Western-style democracy."

The analysis continues: "Bush's determination to build a national missile defense system in the face of loud Russian objections heralds a new era of nuclear tensions. Yet arms control talk may be a welcome diversion for a Moscow leadership that has grown tired of high-minded lecturing from Washington. A pragmatic dose of realpolitik might be a tonic after what many here consider the idealistic but alternately intrusive, naive or uninterested approach of the last eight years under President Clinton."

The analysts cite the view of Moscow analyst Sergei Karaganov, who told them: "The Kremlin was extremely happy [that Bush won. Its] view of the Bush team is that you can deal with them, there will be a clear set of rules. The Kremlin people are more or less traditionalists, as are the Bush people. It's easy for this kind of people to talk to each other."

The analysts also say that "the consensus in Moscow is that relations with the United States have reached a dangerous low. [Former Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev, for example, said [in an interview that] he considered the 1990s to be a time of squandered opportunity. 'There were a lot of smiles, but it really went downhill,' he said. 'The blame goes equally to Russia and America.'"

The analysts add: "Gorbachev, who in the dwindling days of the Soviet Union forged a close relationship with President George Bush, welcomed the credentials of the new team but suggested that the son not make the mistake of his father and wait many months before reaching out to Moscow. And," they say, "Gorbachev, too, was critical of the prospect of American withdrawal from [internal] Russian affairs. 'That would be wrong,' he said. 'That would be a mistake. Security issues will be addressed more effectively if they are part of a broad agenda within which we will be cooperative.' He added: 'The U.S. does not have a strong foreign policy for the post-Cold War world. America has not yet decided what kind of Russia it wants.'"


Several British newspapers today comment on the ongoing controversy over the use of depleted uranium weapons. The Times' defense editor, Michael Evans, writes in an analysis: "Four countries now share the dubious distinction of having been attacked by depleted uranium, or DU, weapons over the past 10 years -- Kuwait, Iraq, Bosnia and Yugoslavia. All the weapons, either in the form of tank shells or air-dropped cannon shells, were fired exclusively by [U.S.] and British forces."

Evans adds: "From 1991 to 1999, NATO forces would have fired a total of between 70,000 and 100,000 DU shells, covering a huge expanse of territory across Kuwait, southern Iraq, Bosnia and Yugoslavia. The results," he says, "have still to be properly assessed in relation to the possible long-term health effects for the local populations and for the NATO troops who had the job of clearing up."


In an editorial, however, the Times dismisses the DU controversy -- at least in Britain -- as largely imaginary. The paper asks: "Tired? Listless? You're probably suffering from Guff [correct -- meaning nonsense or humbug] War syndrome.

"Much of the [British] nation," it writes, "appears to be in the grip of Guff War syndrome -- the pathological tendency to surrender our critical faculties whenever an army of scaremongers fires off another hysteria-tipped broadside about an unsubstantiated or exaggerated risk to public health." It adds: "The wasting effects of Guff War syndrome on the body politic have reached the point where entire news bulletins can become a rundown of the current Top 10 health panics. This week, Balkan War syndrome -- son of Gulf War syndrome -- is jockeying for [a] top spot."

The Times argues: "There is no evidence to substantiate claims that cancer among British Army veterans has been caused by the effects of depleted uranium shells." And, it adds, "the fact that [such a speculative health scare] can take hold of the public imagination [suggests] that something other than medical science is at work here. A discernible pattern has emerged, where people appear predisposed to accept that there must be something in [such] panics, regardless of the known facts."


But other British papers are less skeptical of DU's effects. In a news analysis for the Independent, for example, Kim Sengupta says: "NATO could face a criminal investigation into the use by its forces of depleted uranium ammunition." He cites remarks made yesterday by Carla Del Ponte, the chief prosecutor of the UN war crimes tribunal. Del Ponte, according to the analyst, said her tribunal was awaiting the results of several inquiries being made into the issue by NATO governments. He quotes her as saying: "If we have sufficient [evidence,] we will be obliged to investigate."


An accompanying analysis in the Independent by Robert Fisk, written from the Bosnian village of Bratunac, examines one case of the alleged "Balkan syndrome." Fisk writes: "Sladjana Sarenac remembers the pieces of a depleted-uranium bomb that she picked up outside her home in Sarajevo. 'It glittered and I did what all children do,' she says. 'I was six years old and I pretended to make cookies out of the bits of metal and the soil in the garden. Then I hid the pieces on a shelf because my puppy Tina was playing with it.'"

"Sladjana," Fisk continues, "is now 12 [years old] and has been seriously ill ever since. Her nails have repeatedly fallen out of her fingers and toes. She has suffered internal bleeding, constant diarrhea and vomiting. When her Serb parents fled their home in the Sarajevo suburb of Hadjici after the [1995] Dayton accord, she took her dog with her. It had three puppies. Then Tina died. Then the puppies."

Fisk goes on: "Sladjana's sickness [places] a heavy onus upon NATO to disclose all it knows about DU ammunitions and to start an immediate investigation among Bosnian Serbs from Hadjici about how those closest to the bombings in 1995 became so frequently the victims of cancer and leukemia. NATO," Fisk adds, "has already acknowledged that ingestion of DU particles in the immediate aftermath of a bomb explosion can have a serious effect on health. Here are civilians who clearly were only meters away from DU explosions who are suffering a devastating incidence of cancer, who would willingly speak to NATO investigators, but who NATO has not made the slightest effort to talk to."