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Western Press Review: Debating A U.S. Operation In Iraq To Security Questions In Central Asia

Prague, 18 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Some of the topics the Western press looks at today and over the weekend include relations between the U.S. and Iran, security in Central Asia and the trial of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic at The Hague war crimes tribunal. Several commentaries also continue to focus on the possibility of a U.S.-led military campaign in Iraq, should Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein refuse to allow UN weapons inspectors to return to the country. The precarious security situation in Afghanistan is also discussed, as several commentators appeal for a broader mandate for the international security force.


A news analysis by "The New York Times" correspondent Ian Fischer reprinted in today's "International Herald Tribune" looks at the defense strategy of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic at his ongoing trial in The Hague. The former Serbian leader has denied the legitimacy of the court and refused to appoint defense council, saying he will defend himself.

Fischer says in two days of "bone-chilling" testimony, Milosevic presented as evidence "photo after photo of what the U.S. military calls 'collateral damage,' people killed by NATO bombs." He adds that while "it might comfort some to dismiss Milosevic as a lunatic, [his] defense taps into real grievances of Serbs, the lack of easy solutions in the Balkans, the palpable misgivings among other poor nations about the extent of American power -- if twisted surreally to deny any blame at all for himself."

Fischer says Milosevic's strategy may do little for his defense before the court, but that it is relevant in a broader sense. Milosevic has repeatedly questioned the court's legitimacy and the right of international justice to try him. "In a similar way, the United States has balked at the idea of a permanent international criminal court, for fear its own military leaders would be unfairly tried." Fischer says Milosevic "apparently sees his trial not strictly as a way to defend himself." He is using it to speak, instead, to the world.


In "The Boston Globe," columnist H.D.S. Greenway says that U.S. President George W. Bush's reference last month to an "axis of evil" comprising Iran, Iraq, and North Korea, was "a very big and counter-productive mistake" -- particularly regarding Iran. "Iran should not be written off as an implacable foe. Iran today is riven by a great internal struggle that pits reformers, under [President] Mohammed Khatami, against the old guard conservative clerics led by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei."

Greenway says that what the U.S. president's words have done is "pull the rug out from under the reformers and hand the anti-U.S. faction proof of America's hostile intentions. Thus the door to better relations with one of the most important regional powers, which seemed so hopefully open after 11 September, has been slammed shut in one harmful and unnecessary rhetorical flourish," Greenway writes.

Greenway adds that Iran's pledges of support for the U.S. in the wake of the September attacks, as well as its help in setting up a transitional government in Afghanistan, had created a significant opportunity for better relations between the two nations. However, he says, "the United States took umbrage at the Iranians trying to exert their influence on the new Afghanistan, and then, in a violent swing of the see-saw, came the 'axis of evil' slap in the face."


In the German "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," columnist Leo Wieland says the U.S. administration of President George W. Bush "[seems] agreed on the need for a new Baghdad regime, and [is] just now mulling over how to best achieve it." Wieland says in order to pacify U.S. allies, Secretary of State Colin Powell has made a distinction within Bush's so-called "axis of evil"; while there are no plans for military action against North Korea or Iran, the U.S. administration has made it clear that all options are open regarding Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

Wieland says Americans see the difficulties posed by Iraq "with different eyes and interests from most of their European and Arab coalition partners." There are, he adds, "worthy arguments on both sides." Critics of a U.S.-led confrontation with Iraq see Hussein as "contained," and able to pose only a limited and "tolerable" threat. As a result, they see a frontal strike as being rash, Wieland says. But the U.S. administration sees the Iraqi leader as implacable, "a man who lets his people starve and uses every spare petrodollar for his devious actions." In this view, it would be irresponsible to let Hussein "go about his business undisturbed," says Wieland. "A confrontation is unavoidable, both in the interests of the region [and] of international peace."


A editorial in "The Washington Post" looks at the tenuous situation in Central Asia. It says economic failure and political repression are widespread in the Central Asian states, which -- consequently -- have become "a growing source of Islamic extremism. Thanks to their proximity to Afghanistan, these countries now are drawing money and attention from the Bush administration that [could] help save them from becoming one of the crisis zones of the 21st century. For that to happen, however, the United States needs to carefully balance its long-term security interests in the region with its short-term need for bases," the paper says.

The paper goes on to consider Uzbekistan's President Islam Karimov, calling him "[perhaps] the greatest single threat to long-term U.S. security in Central Asia. His brutal and indiscriminate repression of Muslims in his country has fueled rather than wiped out Uzbek extremist movements, while his statist economic policy has steadily increased the country's isolation and impoverishment," it says.

To achieve real improvement in the area of human rights, the paper says, "U.S. leverage lies in the military relationship, the basing of U.S. troops and planes that Mr. Karimov covets -- and that he no doubt believes would never be sacrificed by Washington on human rights grounds. For just that reason, the Bush administration must be prepared to link the continuance of the military relationship to democratic change." The editorial concludes that the U.S. must "[act] now to ensure that Central Asia does not become the next Afghanistan."


An editorial in "The New York Times" calls the fatal beating of Afghan interim Aviation Minister Abdul Rahman at Kabul airport last week (14 February) "a chilling demonstration [of] why Afghanistan urgently needs an expanded international peacekeeping force." The paper says that interim Afghan leader Hamid Karzai "well understands there is little realistic hope of establishing peace and stability in his war-ravaged country without significantly enlarging the small international force and expanding it to other major cities. Afghanistan is still rife with warlords and combat veterans prepared to take the law into their own hands. Until a new national army and police force can be recruited and trained, a process that will take many months, an expanded international force must hold the line," the paper writes.

It goes on to say: "For now, the international force needs to be bolstered, its initial six-month term extended and its mission widened to other major cities, as Mr. Karzai and the United Nations secretary-general, Kofi Annan, have urged. Washington should strongly support this proposal," says the editorial, adding, "Winning the war in Afghanistan requires keeping the peace."


A contribution to the "International Herald Tribune" by former U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nancy Soderberg, now of the International Crisis Group, also weighs in on the need for an increased U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan. "Many of America's allies have volunteered to send troops to the International Security Assistance Force currently operating in Kabul. They should be encouraged to do so. But the world watches closely to see how seriously the United States is committed to international missions, and the world bases its judgments on whether U.S. boots hit the ground. The United States should announce now that it will join the international force once the campaign against Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan is over."

Soderberg concludes that "it is time to recognize that peacekeeping is part of the job of America's armed forces. Even if Bush takes the war beyond Afghanistan, he must keep U.S. troops engaged there for the long haul."


In "The Times" of Britain, columnist William Rees-Mogg observes that U.S. President Bush is actively building a coalition of support for a U.S.-led military intervention in Iraq. But Rees-Mogg says that in Europe, "there are still some doubts about American intentions: are the Americans really prepared to use armed force to bring down Saddam [Hussein]? [Recent] briefings make it apparent that they are. The president's leadership, the building of an international coalition of support or acquiescence, and the preparation of American public opinion all point the same way."

Rees-Mogg goes on to say that Europe "may not like it, but that has already been factored into the equation in Washington. No one there ever thought that the U.S. would have the support of [EU External Affairs Commissioner] Chris Patten, but they know equally well that Brussels is not going to take any action in defense of Saddam Hussein. They expect [British Prime Minister] Tony Blair to give some support when the time comes, but without the enthusiasm he showed over Afghanistan. In any case, the Americans care far more about Russia and China than about nervous European attitudes," he concludes.


In the 16 February edition of France's daily "Liberation," staff writer Pascal Riche says that the rhetoric of the U.S. administration has gotten sharper each day since U.S. President Bush's State of the Union address on 29 January. He says that within the administration there is no longer any debate about whether intervention in Iraq is necessary -- only about when and how to proceed. "Washington no longer wants to manage the Iraq problem, but to resolve it," writes Riche.

But he says the rest of the world, with the exception of Britain, does not support the idea of renewing hostilities with Iraq. France, Russia, and Arab nations have all denounced the project, he notes. But if Iraq again resists a mission of UN weapons inspectors, Riche says the U.S. will have little choice but to go on the offensive.

The preferred scenario is to provoke a collapse of the current regime, says Riche. But there is no equivalent of Afghanistan's anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, ready to fight on the ground. He says Iraq's "forces of opposition are divided and weak. The only visible forces are the Kurds in the north and the Shiites in the south." To help one or the other take Baghdad would set off problems with Turkey or Saudi Arabia, says Riche.


An editorial in "The Guardian" on 16 February calls on Britain not to support any U.S. military action in Iraq. "Still outraged by the enormity of the 11 September attacks, an implacable and headstrong United States now sees a war against Iraq as the next step in its war against terrorism."

But the paper says it is clear that "a war against Iraq cannot be justified as part of the war against terrorism." The antiterrorism campaign, the paper writes, "was to be a war conducted on the basis of evidence of involvement in the attack on America. It was to be proportionate. It was to be targeted. It would not involve overreaction. It would seek to avoid civilian casualties. It would be the action of a coalition. [This] is a world away from the war that [U.S. President] Bush now proposes to wage against Iraq. There is absolutely no firm evidence linking Iraq to 11 September."

"The Guardian" continues: "Any attack by Mr. Bush on Iraq would mark the end of the post-11 September consensus. That Saddam's regime is a vast problem [for] his own people, for the region, and for the international community is not in dispute. [But] such problems cannot be solved by one country alone. A full-scale attack of the kind now being contemplated [could] not avoid being a classic piece of American unilateralism."


Alan Posener in Germany's "Die Welt" comments on the growing animosity between Europe and U.S., which he describes as "Europe's obsession." Posener says no one any longer refers to "unlimited solidarity among the allies against terror."

The general attitude toward the U.S. is one of resentment toward U.S. supremacy, says Posener. Prominent European statesmen variously refer to European nations, in their relationship with the U.S., as "satellites" and "toadies," or criticize President George W. Bush's view of "an axis of evil" as "simplistic."

Posener, however, says the relationship between Europe and the U.S. is not so much a political issue as one that is "emotional and cultural." History shows that the U.S. has saved Europe time and again -- a fact that has driven Europe to an obsession with displaying an independent policy. But Posener concludes that "no historic experience provides Europe with any legitimacy in this respect."


Christian Wernicke in Germany's "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" says Europeans have legitimate reasons to criticize the U.S. based on its "self-righteous" attitude in European protests. Under the circumstances, he says, Europeans must consider what role they now have to play in the world. Wernicke says Europeans must, of course, concede that militarily they have little to offer. The typical motto of the new world order, he writes, is: "The U.S. fights, the UN feeds, and the EU funds."

Wernicke says it is a question of security that forms the divide between the U.S. and Europe. He says it seems U.S. President Bush "sleeps well, as long as his army is armed to the teeth." Europeans have different priorities, such as the protection of the environment.

The Europeans are partly right, Wernicke says, in criticizing the U.S. for its high-and-mighty attitude. But moralizing, he adds, does not help. In playing the role of U.S. junior partners, he says, all that remains for the European nations is the "strength of clever arguments and the hope that the American president is open-minded enough to keep a cool head in dealing with Iraq."

(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba contributed to this report.)