Prague, 23 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Commentary in the Western press today focuses on what is seen as the increasing possibility of a U.S.-led war against Iraq. Other analysis looks at the "democracy deficit" in the Arab world; signs of weakness within Al-Qaeda; the idea of a NATO peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan; and North Korea's nuclear-weapons program.
THE NEW YORK TIMES:
Columnist Thomas L. Friedman, writing in "The New York Times," says Iraqi President Saddam Hussein will likely have one more exit opportunity to avoid war with the United States. He calls it "the Primakov moment."
Friedman recalls that Yevgenii Primakov was the Russian envoy who made several failed trips to Baghdad in 1990 and 1991 to try to talk Hussein out of Kuwait to avoid a war. "My guess is that we will see this play again," Friedman says. "Before Gulf War II is launched, a Russian-French or Arab delegation will fly to Baghdad and try to persuade Saddam to spare his family and everyone else from a war, either by disclosing his weapons or by going into exile under Arab or European protection."
Friedman says too many nations don't want to see another Gulf war. Egypt is terrified about a popular backlash. Syria has no interest because it could be the next target. For Turkey, a war would choke its critical trade with Iraq and possibly bring a huge influx of Kurdish refugees. Iran's hard-liners have no interest in a pro-U.S. Iraqi democracy next door.
"And then there are the Iraqi Kurds," Friedman says. "Their zone is currently protected by the U.S. no-flight regime, and as a result they have established their own quasi independent state in northern Iraq, with their own oil revenues. They have never been happier."
For all these reasons, Friedman concludes, the United States needs to let the UN inspections process play out. He says Washington still needs credible evidence to justify a war, if it expects to have allied support. And it needs to be prepared for anything, because as the climax of this story approaches, he says, an Arab or European delegation could show up in Baghdad and forge a deal for Saddam Hussein to back down or go into exile.
In Britain's "The Times," commentator William Rees-Mogg says momentum for a U.S. war against Iraq is now so great that it cannot be stopped, short of a miracle. "If [U.S.] President [George W.] Bush was now to flinch, which he will not do, the consequences would be disastrous, not only to his administration and to the United States, but to world peace and to the Middle East," Rees-Mogg writes. "If he retreated at this point, he might just as well resign as president."
Even worse, he says, would be the effect in the Middle East itself. Saddam Hussein would emerge as the leader who had twice survived U.S. assaults. The Arab world would be convinced that his methods were successful. "Apart from other consequences, there would be an immediate threat to other Arab regimes as well as to Israel," he writes.
Rees-Mogg notes that U.S. Senator Richard Lugar (Republican-Indiana) will become the influential chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee in January. Lugar is a hawk on the issue of Iraq and has been skeptical about UN weapons inspectors. "The senator assumes that the war has to happen, and that it will be successful," Rees-Mogg writes.
Lugar has planned hearings to discuss U.S. intentions for Iraq after Saddam Hussein has been removed. And in this, he says, "there may be an implied criticism of the administration's policy, or at least an anxiety that the administration may not have a well thought-out policy."
The first difficulty "is that a new constitution would need to be established in the immediate aftermath of war. The only authority capable of putting that in place will be the U.S. Army. Has the American administration really worked out what will have to be done?"
The second difficulty will be the division of oil revenues. Under a federal system, there would have to be a sharing of the revenues. Would that simply follow the regional boundaries, which might divide Iraq into oil-rich and oil-poor provinces? Would there be cash transfers from the more fortunate oil regions to the less fortunate?
"The United States is gearing up for the war," Rees-Mogg concludes. "Given the unpopularity of the regime, it is quite possible that the war will be quick and successful. Senator Lugar is right to be asking the critical question: 'What will happen next?'"
War and peace is the subject of an editorial by Torsten Krauel in "Die Welt." In writing of the prospects for a war against Iraq, Krauel still expresses a hope that a last-minute calm will prevail, especially considering the message of peace that is on everyone's lips in this season of goodwill.
Krauel warns that since military targets in Iraq are dispersed in the middle of civilian populations, bombing would cause untold casualties. The 1991 war proved the manner in which Saddam Hussein sacrificed his people as hostages of the bombing.
Krauel says the over-60 generation, whom he calls the "bomb-shelter children," know only too well what air raids mean. Considering their experience in World War II, "the air-raid-shelter children have quite a different opinion about a war with Iraq than the computer generation."
Even those among the later generation who recognize that Saddam Hussein is a criminal are searching for the ways and means to prevent war. They hope to exert their influence at Christmas time for peace to prevail as the day of decision-making draws ever nearer.
LOS ANGELES TIMES:
Writing in the "Los Angeles Times," Fawaz A. Gerges, author of "The Islamists and the West," says Al-Qaeda leaders have recently unleashed a new campaign of psychological warfare in the form of threats against Westerners in an effort to sow fear and inflict economic damage.
This post-11 September 2001 terror, he says, relying on decentralized operations and aimed mainly at "soft" civilian targets, is designed to defy the United States and to indicate that Al-Qaeda's reach is global.
"Al-Qaeda has shown itself to be highly adaptable and resourceful by scattering its surviving fighters, estimated in the low hundreds, from Afghanistan into various destinations, and by building alliances with other fringe Islamic groups," Gerges says. "But these recent attacks, bloody and costly as they are, should not blind us to the fact that Al-Qaeda is a shadow of its former self."
The war against terrorism has slowly but steadily dismantled the group's infrastructure, he says. "The network lost its vital operational base in Afghanistan. Its partner, the Taliban regime, is history. Its financial and military infrastructure in Europe, particularly in Germany, France and England, was dismantled."
As a result of the tightening of the international noose around its neck, Al-Qaeda acts like a serial criminal band, killing at random. "This is a sign of weakness and desperation," Gerges says, "not strength."
Though the Bush administration should not lower its guard or be complacent, it must avoid falling into a trap of fear and panic. The United States must find ways to frustrate the network's tactics. Working closely with allies and friends is the most effective way of putting bin Laden and his organization out of business once and for all.
LOS ANGELES TIMES:
Also in the "Los Angeles Times," Shlomo Avineri, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, writes about the "democracy deficit" in the Arab world.
In the 19th century, he writes, it was a widely held belief among certain European and American intellectuals that Catholicism and democracy were irreconcilable. This seems an absurd assumption today, in a world where heavily Catholic Christian Democratic parties are pillars of democracy throughout Europe. And it is equally absurd, Avineri writes, though quite common, to assume that Islam and democracy are incompatible.
"Take the case of Turkey, where a secular constitution has transformed the country over the last 80 years into a functioning, albeit deeply flawed, democracy. The country's recently held democratic elections saw the victory of a party with strong Islamic roots that is nonetheless committed to democracy and human rights."
Iran, too, should be considered. The country's Islamic constitution is obviously oppressive. But this same constitution guarantees elections that, while not entirely free, are not a sham. Other examples -- including Bangladesh, Indonesia, even Pakistan between military dictators -- suggest that multiparty systems and elections are not alien to the Muslim world.
Yet it is a fact, Avineri says, that in the heart of the Muslim world there is a bloc of countries where not one is democratic and there has been no real movement toward democracy: the 21 member countries of the Arab League.
"The Arab world encompasses a great variety of countries: Some are poor, such as Egypt, Algeria, Sudan and Yemen, while others are enormously rich, such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. They are small and large, populous and sparsely populated. There are monarchies and military dictatorships, benevolent and harsh. But none of their leaders was freely elected," he writes.
This lack of a democratic culture in Arab countries still needs an explanation, he writes, but until 11 September 2001, it was not politically correct to mention it. It is now finally getting both political and scholarly attention worldwide, not because of a simplistic acceptance of a "clash of civilizations" theory but for more practical reasons. The democracy deficit in Arab societies has become a major issue for global security.
When people in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, for example, are deprived of freedom at home, they are pushed to religious fanaticism as the only way to express anger at their oppression.
"Islam is not the enemy," Avineri writes. "But the lack of democracy in Arab countries pushes people toward religious fanaticism and terrorism. This major danger to world security must be addressed frankly and openly."
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE
"The Wall Street Journal Europe" makes the case for NATO taking a larger role in peacekeeping. "The thankless job of peacekeeping happens to be crucially important to the success of the U.S.-led war on terror," the paper writes. "The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, that old Cold War workhorse, happens to do this job better than anyone. It's about time it was put to better use," particularly in Afghanistan.
Individual members of NATO have for all practical purposes handled Afghanistan ever since the United States moved to root out Osama bin Laden's terrorist network there," the paper says. "But NATO, as an organization, was not officially present. This policy needs to be changed."
It says NATO as a whole is the logical successor to take over duties after the German and Dutch finish their term in control of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in six months. "A mission of this size would be relatively easy to manage for the alliance," it says. And "a permanent mission would show the Afghans that the Western powers won't abandon the country soon."
The other immediate military benefit of bringing in the alliance could be to put a larger security presence on the ground. ISAF today polices only Kabul, leaving the rest of the country under the control of competing warlords prone to violence. NATO makes an expansion of ISAF militarily and politically feasible.
If deployed smartly, "The Wall Street Journal Europe" says, "NATO can be a true asset in the war against global terrorism. The foremost challenge is to make sure places like Afghanistan once liberated don't go back to their old habits. NATO has the expertise and the troops to do the job as well beyond Europe's now mostly stable frontiers. The place to start is Afghanistan -- then, just maybe, Iraq."
An editorial in the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" assesses yesterday's report declaring that North Korea has begun removing United Nations surveillance equipment from a nuclear reactor at the heart of North Korea's nuclear weapons program.
The paper says the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il is playing a dangerous game. For months now, he has exerted systematic pressure with nuclear threats in an attempt to force the United States to accede to negotiations. The paper describes this poker game as extremely dangerous, since for want of a better solution the United States might resort to bombing North Korea.
So far, President Bush has said he does not intend to tackle the crisis in North Korea with military intervention. Nevertheless, as Pyongyang boosts its defiance, Washington's arguments weaken and a diplomatic solution becomes ever less likely to succeed.
(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba contributed to this report.)