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Western Press Review: Balkan 'Flashpoints,' The Mideast, And Trans-Atlantic Rift Over Steel

Prague, 7 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The now-daily violence in the Middle East and the ongoing U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan continue to occupy the spotlight in the Western media today. Fierce fighting continues in eastern Afghanistan between antiterrorism coalition forces and members of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, amid reports of more casualties on both sides overnight. Other subjects include public information versus military secrets in the war on terrorism, going in search of a "coherent" U.S. foreign policy, persistent flashpoints in the Balkans and the threat of a new trans-Atlantic trade dispute following the announcement this week of a three-year protectionist tax on steel imports to aid the ailing U.S. steel industry.


In the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung," commentator Stefan Dietrich discusses the deaths of two German members of the international peacekeeping force in Kabul, who were killed yesterday along with three Danish soldiers while attempting to defuse surface-to-air missiles. Dietrich remarks that this incident "has come as a shock" to the German public. He says that German citizens, "having only just learned -- and that thanks to a leak -- that the Germans in Afghanistan are not just manning police patrols, but are also being deployed in combat zones, they now know that Kabul is not nearly as safe as the pictures of friendly Afghans waving at the newly arrived German peacekeepers suggested. The truth is that this is the most dangerous mission the German military has ever undertaken," he says.

Dietrich writes that the public has been told "far too little about the dangers to which even the main contingent of Bundeswehr [German Army] soldiers based in Kabul are being exposed." He warns that the German government's lack of a public information policy threatens to undermine support for operations in Afghanistan. "If the widespread support the Afghanistan mission has so far enjoyed now turns into the opposite, the government's erroneous belief that it must shield the public from unpleasant realities will be at least partly to blame."


In "Jane's Islamic Affairs Analyst," A. Brownfeld says that U.S. foreign policy under President George W. Bush lacks a coherent, unified purpose. He remarks that the U.S. president has backtracked on issues and contradicted his own previous statements. "Early in his administration, President Bush spoke of the need to establish a Palestinian state. More recently, he has escalated his criticism of Yasser Arafat and has embraced [Israeli Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon's view that the Palestinian leader cannot be trusted."

Bush's war on terrorism is similarly "plagued with contradictions," says Brownfeld. "In order to gain Russian support for the war in Afghanistan, [the] U.S. has permitted President Vladimir Putin to define his own assault on Chechnya as similar to the U.S. war on terrorism. During the presidential campaign, Bush criticized the [former President Bill] Clinton administration for its insufficient concern for the Chechens. [By] being unwilling to offend Moscow, the U.S. holds open to question its commitment to human rights."

Brownfeld concludes that U.S. foreign policy "seems to lack consistency and coherence." He says perhaps the Bush administration "should concentrate on defeating Al-Qaeda terrorists -- both in Afghanistan and other regions -- and rethink its long-term strategy, one which seems ambiguous at best and which could potentially make the world a more dangerous rather than a safer place."


An editorial in Britain's daily "Financial Times" suggests that the left-wing Labor Party in the Israeli government coalition should break ranks with Prime Minister Sharon and position itself as an effective opposition party. The paper says in doing this, Labor may have a better chance to come up with a viable policy alternative to Sharon's hard-line military strategy.

The daily says that within the government coalition, Labor "appears to have had minimal impact. Mr. Sharon has ignored warnings issued by his Labor partners, who have repeatedly cautioned against isolating Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, and weakening his Palestinian Authority. He has shown no inclination to listen to the recommendations of Shimon Peres, the foreign minister, who has pleaded for a diplomatic way out of the crisis."

Unless Labor comes up with its own approach to the conflict, the paper says, "the alternative to Mr. Sharon will be Benjamin Netanyahu, the former prime minister with equally hard-line views."

The editorial concludes: "A Labor return to opposition would allow it to regroup and offer a more convincing alternative vision for ending the conflict. [The] presence in Israel of a credible opposition with a plan for peace might encourage greater U.S. engagement. Labor has little left to gain from its association with Mr. Sharon. It would better serve Israel's interests if it left the government."


"Jane's Intelligence Digest" of 8 March looks at lingering unrest in the Balkans and says that the risk of instability leading to more interethnic conflict remains. "Of all the potential Balkan flash points, Macedonia remains the most volatile."

Despite the peace deal signed in Ohrid last August between the Macedonian government and ethnic Albanian insurgents, it says "there is mounting concern that the conflict is far from over, despite a slow process of constitutional reform aimed at addressing Albanian grievances."

"Jane's" says that following the launch of the U.S. campaign against terrorist groups, the Macedonian authorities are eager to present what they claim is evidence that foreign Islamic militants were involved in the ethnic Albanian National Liberation Army campaign in Macedonia and remain active in the region.

The digest goes on to suggest that nationalist sentiment in Macedonia may be on the rise, increasing the chances of renewed interethnic tensions. It says Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski "has been playing an increasingly nationalist hand, in contrast to President Boris Trajkovski, who favors a more moderate, negotiated political settlement for the country's ethnic tensions. Georgievski's strategy seems to rest on encouraging a polarization of the Macedonian Slav electorate in the hope that he will win a strongly nationalist mandate and dispense with the necessity of doing coalition deals with one or other of the two main ethnic Albanian parties."


Tomas Avenarius, in the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung," debates whether the establishment of a national army in Afghanistan can really ensure lasting security. Avenarius expresses doubt that such an army will be viable, considering the multitude of factions and tribes in Afghanistan.

He says it is hard to imagine the creation of a national military force that will "march in step." Ideally, there should be a shared national vision that would bind all the various tribes together. "But this is hardly to be expected," Avenarius writes.

Demobilizing the existing forces, however, is a social problem, he says. "Two million men in the military are 2 million men feeding their families on soldiers' pay." Since there is dire poverty in Afghanistan, as many men as possible must be integrated into the army, he says. But he acknowledges that there are also inherent dangers in this.

However, Avenarius goes on to note that the Tokyo donors' conference did not allocate any of the $4.5 billion in aid pledged to Afghanistan for building a national army.


An editorial in France's "Le Monde" today looks at the U.S. administration's decision this week to impose tariffs on a range of steel products imported into the United States. "Le Monde" says that -- in light of U.S. President Bush's professed support for free trade, competition, and market integration -- his announcement seems hypocritical.

"Le Monde" acknowledges that large American steel makers are having a difficult time. Some risk bankruptcy and the associated losses of jobs and pension plans for hundreds of thousands of steelworkers, it says. Thus, the demand for help from the state. But the editorial says Bush is wrong in his choice of method. His decision merely confirms American unilateralist tendencies, it says. "Certain of its [power], quietly assured by its impunity, [America] chooses to apply only the rules that are convenient for it."

But in this case, Bush's motives were largely electoral, says the paper. In November elections, some of the states in which the steel industry is rooted -- such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia -- will play a key role in the success of Bush's Republican Party.

"Le Monde" concludes that Bush "lost a lot of credit in this business." So often the moralizer on free trade issues, "Le Monde" says he has sinned three times: "against deserving competitors, against free trade in general, and against the long-term interests of the country."


An editorial in Britain's "The Independent" also weighs in on the simmering trans-Atlantic trade dispute. The paper is critical of the U.S. administration's decision, but warns Europe against becoming embroiled in a trade war with America.

"It is strange, not to say offensive, that the nation that preaches most passionately to the rest of the world about the virtues of globalization should be one of the most willing to restrict imports and free trade when globalization begins to threaten its own short-term interests."

The editorial suggests that the European Union should take up the case with the World Trade Organization. But it says that "for the EU to impose its own tariffs and barriers against steel imports, or indulge in retaliatory measures against the U.S., would be a much more hazardous affair.... [Such] trade disputes can quickly escalate and cause far more economic damage to all. That is the bigger picture, which Europe's leaders have to bear in mind when faced with complaints from European steel producers. Restraint has to be the first impulse when faced with the sort of selfish and arrogant policy that America is now pursuing," "The Independent" concludes.


An editorial by Michael Stuermer in "Die Welt" looks at the situation in the Middle East. He says that in the region, "the situation is never as good, nor as bad, as it looks." At present, though, both Israelis and Palestinians are at the lowest level of hopelessness, he says. This, remarks Stuermer, may be the very moment to find a way out.

Now is the time to seriously consider Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Abdullah's proposition for the Arab countries to recognize Israel in exchange for a return to the border status preceding the 1967 war. He notes that this goes back to the old idea of "land for peace" agreed in Oslo in 1993.

Stuermer examines the underlying economic and political motives of both Saudi Arabia and Egypt in calling for peace, and also the cautious steps taken by the U.S., which must mediate in the Middle East without aggravating the Arab allies it needs in its campaign against terrorism. Finally, he says, Europe must play more than an observer role, given its economic interests.

Taking all these factors into account, he concludes, "reason is on the side of peace."

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