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Western Press Review: Trans-Atlantic Relations And Iraq, Bidding Farewell To Havel And Yugoslavia

Prague, 31 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentary continues to look at the effect the debate over Iraq's suspected weapons programs is having on trans-Atlantic relations. While nine heads of state and government declared their support for U.S. policies on Iraq in a widely publicized open letter yesterday, several European Union leaders continue to be skeptical of the U.S. administration's arguments for possible military action.

Other debate focuses around the "moral" justifications for war, what the election victory of Israel's right-wing Likud Party will mean for the Mideast peace process, and the transition of Yugoslavia into a loose federation to be called Serbia and Montenegro.


The "Financial Times" declares that Yugoslavia, a state "founded in 1918 as the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes on the ruins of the Habsburg empire," is quietly passing into history. Yugoslavia's last two constituent republics will now be joined in a loose federation called Serbia and Montenegro.

The former Yugoslavia has been replaced by five countries: Serbia and Montenegro, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, and Macedonia. More states might emerge in the future if Kosovo gains independence from Serbia, Montenegro's pro-independence forces gain the upper hand, or if Bosnia further divides.

The "Financial Times" says the new post-Yugoslavia states now face difficult political and economic issues, including the ongoing debates over independence for some of the territories. "The best hope is that disputes can be settled without further violence and that, having established their independent identities, the new states learn to co-operate, especially in economic affairs."

If they achieve economic stability and growth and settle any territorial disputes peacefully, European Union membership is in the offing. "At that point, the borders over which so much blood has been spilt may finally cease to matter so much," the "Financial Times" concludes.


In "The Washington Post," commentator Michael Kinsley calls U.S. President George W. Bush's justifications for war with Iraq "morally unserious." In his 28 January State of the Union address, Bush vividly described some of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's alleged methods of maintaining political control, including using chemical weapons on villages and torturing children in front of their parents to enforce compliance.

Kinsley says ending this type of repression would be a "fine, noble reason" to go to war. But he points out, "It would have been a fine reason two decades ago, [when] Hussein destroyed those villages and the United States looked the other way. It would be a fine reason to topple other governments around the world." If Iraq's human rights abuses "morally require the United States to act," Kinsley asks, why is the world waiting for weapons inspectors to complete their task?

Conversely, "[What] happens if Hussein decides to meet all [U.S.] demands regarding weapons and inspections? Is he then free to torture children?"

If the danger that Saddam Hussein will "develop and use weapons of mass destruction against the United States justifies removing [him], what does torturing children have to do with it?" Kinsley asks. He says if human rights abuses "are neither necessary nor sufficient as a reason for war, in Bush's view, [that] makes the talk about the torture of children merely decorative, not serious."


Writing in the British "The Guardian," Ian Black says the divisions within Europe over the Iraq debate were "cruelly exposed" yesterday after eight European leaders publicly expressed support for the U.S. in an open letter, while other nations continue to oppose military action. Nor were key EU officials consulted beforehand, including EU External Relations Commissioner Chris Patton or its foreign policy chief, Javier Solana.

Black notes that only five of the EU's 15 current members signed the appeal, which called on Europe and the United States to work together on the Iraq crisis. Britain, Spain, Italy, Denmark, and Portugal were joined by EU hopefuls Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and then subsequently by Slovakia. Black says the letter was carefully orchestrated to marginalize Germany and France -- both of which outspokenly oppose a possible war. Germany is opposed to military action under any circumstances.

Black says the European split has also affected NATO, as Germany and France are leading opposition to a U.S. request for NATO to provide antimissile cover for Turkey in the event of operations in neighboring Iraq.

Black says it is now "painfully clear" that the European Union is "destined to sit on the sidelines" on Iraq, which he calls "the biggest international crisis for many years." Nevertheless, he says, the EU "will almost certainly be expected to help pay for the postwar reconstruction of the country."


Guenther Nonnenmacher in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" looks at U.S. determination to oust Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, although many argue that war with Iraq would only cause new problems in the Middle East.

Nonnenmacher says, "There is no obvious reason why a military intervention should be more urgent today than it was yesterday. Washington still has no proof of a link between Baghdad and Al-Qaeda. There is also no conclusive evidence that Iraq is working on new weapons programs."

Nonnenmacher also questions the consequences of a war with Iraq, which he says remain unclear. He asks, "Is war worthwhile if the result is that Saddam is merely replaced by one of his less-evil followers?" Nonnenmacher also doubts that the exiled Iraqi opposition would be in a position to lead the country, nor is setting up a UN protectorate the answer to the problem.

In discussing this point, Nonnenmacher says, "The examples of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo -- geographically manageable units compared to Iraq -- should suffice to relegate that idea to dreamland."

Having argued several pros and cons, Nonnenmacher draws the conclusion that "a combination of threats and inspections, of economic sanctions and military restrictions to enforce disarmament, appears to be the lesser evil compared to the uncertainties of war."


Christian Ultsch in the Austrian daily "Die Presse" also discusses divisions in Europe with regard to Iraq. "The Iraqi crisis has split Europe. On the one hand, Great Britain, Spain, Italy, Denmark and Portugal -- as well as future EU members Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia -- unequivocally stated the U.S. could depend on them, even before proof against Iraq was produced."

On the other hand, there are those states that dare to differ with the Americans on such a sensitive issue, namely Germany and France, which were dismissed as "old Europe" by the U.S. defense secretary. Ultsch says rejecting participation in a war with Iraq expresses Europe's new self-confidence, in that it does not just automatically approve matters decided overseas.

"This has little to do with anti-Americanism," says Ultsch. "Rather, it is an issue of emancipation."

Although the manner in which Germany and France have rejected going to war with Iraq was clumsy, Ultsch says they did the right thing.


In a contribution to the "International Herald Tribune," Gideon Samet of the Israeli daily "Ha'aretz" says Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon might be forced to alter his policies based on a new set of circumstances.

As a result of the 28 January elections, Sharon will now be able to form a right-leaning government with an effective majority. But Sharon is reluctant to do so, as he "is well aware of the obstacles that such a political team would face." His need "for diplomatic leeway with Washington and the European Union [may] well force him to woo Labor into his coalition. To achieve that, he will have to consider making some basic changes to his political agenda."

Moreover, says Samet, Sharon does not want to be trapped into a right-wing agenda because he is anticipating a new regional setup following a possible war in Iraq, which will force the U.S. administration into "intensified diplomatic activity" in the Mideast.

Sharon's success in the elections has left it "almost entirely up to him to shape a policy change." Samet says, "What motivated voters most was rage at the price Palestinian violence makes them pay. But they will not tolerate for long a government totally opposed to settling this conflict by diplomatic means. Sharon knows that."


In France's "Liberation," columnist Patrick Sabatier says Europe has been the first victim of a potential offensive in Iraq. This missile was launched by the nine signatories (including Slovakia, whose Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda signed on after its publication) of the open letter in support of the United States, says Sabatier, but the target was chosen by Washington.

U.S. leaders want to undermine the emergence of a European power that is capable of contesting its military, diplomatic, economic, and technological leadership. They pressure Europe to work always in concert within a Euro-Atlantic community, and divide European nations in order to better exert control. The United States wants Europe only as consumers for its goods, if not mere vassals, he says.

But it does not suffice to be indignant at U.S. hegemony, which is neither new nor unexpected, he says. In some ways, France brought this marginalization upon itself, by threatening to veto military action against Iraq at the UN Security Council and by aligning itself with Germany's strident pacifism.

Moreover, the return of the Franco-German partnership irritates many Europeans, says Sabatier.


Guido Heinen, writing in "Die Welt," examines the motives underlying the letter supported by the representatives of nine European countries expressing solidarity with the United States in its campaign against Iraq.

Heinen says the signatories -- leaders from Britain, Czech Republic, Denmark, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Spain, and later Slovakia -- are making "a desperate attempt to oppose the German drive to polarize nations. It is a clear signal to the German government, which is exploiting the Iraq conflict for its home policy games."

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is intent on polarization. But the nine "have shown him that they have seen through this game," says Heinen. When the situation gets serious, French President Jacques Chirac, Schroeder's supposed cohort on this issue, will stand on the side of the United States.

Germany should now be able to imagine how marginalized it has become.


An editorial in the "Chicago Tribune" bids farewell to Czech President Vaclav Havel, who, after serving the maximum two consecutive terms allowed by the constitution will step down on 2 February.

"Few presidents anywhere at any time have spoken their minds with such eloquence and thoughtfulness as the dissident playwright who ended up running the place," the paper says. Havel was repeatedly imprisoned for dissident activities while then-Czechoslovakia was under the thumb of Soviet communism. Today, he is respected internationally for "his intellectual morality and his unapologetic defense of liberalism."

But the Czech Republic has struggled over the last decade-plus of independence, says the paper. Rapid privatization has led to widespread corruption, and a "bitterly divided" parliament has yet to choose a presidential successor.

But these "are the problems of a democracy," the paper says. "They are the problems of an emerging, free-market economy in a country that belongs to NATO and that next year will join the European Union." Czechs today "live in a free country, a civil society where they can speak their minds."

The paper says Havel "is largely responsible" for the "mundane reality" of such bureaucratic problems -- and this has been "a priceless gift to his nation."

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