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Western Press Review: Karzai, Bush And Instability In The Pankisi Gorge

Prague, 20 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Commentary in the Western press today looks at European neutrality, the troubles of the Afghan interim government, and the visit of U.S. President George W. Bush to Beijing. Also discussed are recent troubles in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge and what is being perceived as a growing trans-Atlantic rift.


In the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," Jasper von Altenbockum looks at the history of military neutrality practiced by a number of European states, notably Sweden, Finland, Austria, and Ireland. Von Altenbockum says that the freedom this neutrality offered allowed some states "to cultivate a noble image as the world's conscience, thus diverting attention from the fact that others were taking care of its security." The end of this practice is proving painful, he says, although no one "seriously believed that the neutral states would be able to retreat completely from this world...."

Von Altenbockum says Europe's new security doctrine "of collective responsibility for keeping the peace with the option of non-involvement only in exceptional cases [gives] us a foretaste of the EU's security and defense aspirations...." What Europe's NATO and EU member states "seem to like doing best," he says, "is keeping a peace that someone else has negotiated."

Von Altenbockum goes on to say that today, "Europe is more of a dithering, neutral bloc than ever before in its history. In the war against terror, too, the Europeans are once again trying to avoid getting their hands dirty -- even in the course of defending their own interests. This [points] to a deep-seated yearning for the kind of moral impeccability that the neutral states for so long indulged. Let no one claim there is no longer any place for them in Europe."


In the 25 February edition of U.S.-based "Newsweek" magazine, Michael Hirsh and Scott Johnson look at some of the difficulties facing Afghan interim leader Hamid Karzai. The authors say the brutal murder of an Afghan minister at Kabul airport last week (14 February) has highlighted some of the confusion gripping the country.

Initial reports stated the minister was killed by a mob of angry pilgrims who were at the airport to catch a flight to the hajj pilgrimage in Mecca. Later, Karzai announced that the minister had been assassinated in an apparent plot by some of Karzai's own government ministers from the ethnic Tajik Jamiat-i-Islami faction. But other camps within the government began undercutting Karzai's claims, once again claiming that hajji, or pilgrims, were responsible, while others suggested exiled warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar orchestrated the killing to divide the fragile government.

Authors Hirsh and Johnson say the controversy has "raised fresh questions about Karzai's political skills. It also provoked new doubts about the Bush administration's approach to nation-building -- which mainly involves small Special Forces teams on the ground and the implied threat of bombers overhead." The authors note that President Bush "continues to insist that no U.S. peacekeepers will be deployed. But various warlords are consolidating control, dividing Afghanistan into private fiefdoms, and international aid that might shore up Karzai is only trickling in." Until Afghanistan stabilizes, they say, Karzai will have to "live by his wits."


Turning to George W. Bush's trip this week to China, an editorial in "The Wall Street Journal Europe" says comparisons being made between the historic 1972 visit of former U.S. President Richard Nixon to China and Bush's visit are "overblown, to say the least." The editorial notes that when Nixon met with Mao Tse-Tung, their countries "were united by the shared fear of a rising Soviet power. In our post-11 September world, the thinking goes, America and China will be similarly drawn together by the threat of global terrorism." But this is just wishful thinking, says the paper. "Unlike 30 years ago, the two countries do not confront a single, unmistakable menace. Instead they face an assortment of threats, some of which are obviously more worrisome to the U.S. than to China, and vice versa."

The paper says that even what it calls China's "restricted" support for the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan was driven by "transitory, tactical considerations, having to do primarily with Beijing's immediate desire to bolster its own domestic security, rather than by any lasting confluence of strategic visions with the U.S." It says the Chinese government "hopes that the elimination of a nearby terrorist safe haven will help to constrict support for Islamist forces that it accuses of waging guerrilla warfare in its western provinces."


A "Financial Times" editorial today says U.S. President George W. Bush's visit to China this week "provides an excellent opportunity to put the vital U.S.-China relationship onto a stable, long-term footing." It says that since 11 September, the relationship between the two powers has dramatically improved. "But deep differences remain," it writes. "Positive engagement on both sides will be needed to make the relationship work better."

The "FT" says that while the U.S. "must continue to take a firm line against human rights abuses and threats to Taiwan, that should be done within the context of cooperation." It says Bush will also "rightly seek an end to Chinese actions encouraging weapons proliferation. He will demand support for his campaign to stop countries such as North Korea producing weapons of mass destruction. But China needs persuading," the paper remarks. The paper concludes that Bush should ensure that his administration spends sufficient time and energy in exploiting the opportunity to develop the Sino-U.S. relationship.


An analysis by Philippe Pons in France's daily "Le Monde" also looks at Bush's trip to Asia this week. Pons says that the U.S. State Department has been attempting to modify the U.S. president's "axis of evil" comment from his State of the Union address (29 January). Pons says Bush's statement was greeted "with apprehension, if not irritation," by the two biggest U.S. allies in the region, South Korea and Japan. Pons writes that in Japan, Bush has a very pro-American interlocutor in Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, but the Japanese leader is weakened by a fall in popularity and a deteriorating economic situation. For the Bush administration, Pons says, questions of economy and security are connected: a weakened Japanese ally opens a regional geopolitical space that China would not mind filling.

Pons says Japan has agreed to combat the production of weapons of mass destruction, but feels rather "ill at ease" when it is a question of supporting the new American policy towards North Korea, and is also apprehensive about embarking on a dangerous union with Washington. Pons goes on to remark that by widening the "axis of evil" from the Middle East to Asia, Bush may ultimately be justifying the implementation of a large-scale anti-missile shield.


An editorial in "The Washington Post" says that "blunt and unpleasant rhetoric has been flying back and forth between the United States and Europe in the past few weeks, at remarkably senior levels of government." Criticism of the U.S. president's characterization of Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as an "axis of evil" has come from Europe, as have charges of simplicity and unilateralism. For its part, the U.S. has dismissed such statements as "vapors." But the paper says this controversy offers a vital opportunity for both sides of the Atlantic "to forge a new consensus on security in the post-11 September world."

The "Post" says that Bush's "axis of evil" statement should not be understood in unilateralist terms. Instead, it is better characterized as the opposite: "the beginning of a concerted campaign to convince key American allies in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East that the status quo policies for containing Iraq, Iran, and North Korea are no longer acceptable. The change is overdue," the paper adds. "After years of drift, [new] and more forceful strategies must be tried."

The editorial says Bush's tour of Asia this week "should mark the beginning of a concerted effort by the United States and key allies to develop those strategies. [Talks] with Europe will soon follow." The paper concludes by saying that European governments should also come up with their own proposals for a more forceful containment strategy.


In "Eurasia View," Russian affairs analyst Ariel Cohen of the Heritage Foundation discusses instability in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge region. Cohen says reports that Al-Qaeda fighters have found refuge in Georgia are "stoking pressure for outside military intervention. Top Russian officials are once again hinting that Moscow may feel compelled to intervene militarily to contain Islamic radicals in Georgia. Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze is categorically opposed to Russian intervention in the Pankisi Gorge, but he has indicated that he would consider a Georgian-U.S. joint operation."

Cohen says Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov has warned that Georgia's "chaotic conditions" justified the launch "of an immediate antiterror offensive." If Georgia is incapable of securing the region, Ivanov hinted that the Russian military "could take matters into its own hands."

Cohen says the top U.S. diplomat in Georgia, Philip Remler, recently indicated that Washington is willing to enhance security cooperation with Georgia. He adds that some analysts believe the timing of Remler's comments "may have been designed to forestall a Russian military move in Georgia."