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Western Press Review: 'Weapons Of Mass Delusion' And The Pole Position

Prague, 9 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Commentary in U.S. and British newspapers today and over the weekend focus on the continuing fallout from the failure of coalition forces in Iraq to find weapons of mass destruction. Also on the editorial agenda is Poland's vote over the weekend to join the European Union and Britain's long-awaited decision on whether to join the eurozone.


Britain's "Independent" leads the charge against Prime Minister Tony Blair, who before the Iraq war made strong claims Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. Now Blair faces growing pressure in parliament that he purposefully duped the public to whip up enthusiasm for the war -- or, at best, he himself was duped by his own intelligence services.

The "Independent" writes: "Something has gone badly wrong. We know it. You know it. Surely the prime minister knows it." The paper continues: "Before the war we were told that Saddam was a growing threat to the region and to the rest of the world. During the conflict the fading tyrant did not even possess sufficient conventional weapons to put up any significant resistance. Now his weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) are nowhere to be seen. While it is still possible that some will turn up over the coming months, it will not be on the scale that Tony Blair suggested in order to justify a conflict in which thousands of civilians and soldiers were killed."

The paper says, quote, "The political mood is changing fast. Even some of those who praised Mr. Blair during the war are having doubts now." The "Independent" concludes that it hopes Blair can regain his credibility, but says "nothing short of firm evidence that Saddam possessed WMDs, which were a threat to the world, will persuade this newspaper that the prime minister was right to lead this country into war."


London's "Sunday Times" picks up the WMD theme and focuses on a claim Blair's office made before the war that Iraq could launch a biological attack within 45 minutes. That claim -- said to have originated in British intelligence reports -- now looks exaggerated.

The "Times" says: "The prime minister's claim that Saddam could use his lethal weapons in 45 minutes was electrifying. Within much less time it had flashed worldwide and was being broadcast on television and radio stations across the globe. In America it was said that Mr. Blair was making the case for action against Iraq more effectively than George W. Bush."

"It looked," the paper says, "like British intelligence's finest hour. But it wasn't."

The "Times" says the 45-minute claim looks increasingly absurd and says: "Trust, Mr. Blair's most precious political commodity, is ebbing away fast." The paper recommends that Blair submit the intelligence reports and the decision to go to war to a full independent inquiry. The "Times" concludes by saying the "onus is on [Tony Blair] to prove his contention that Saddam's weapons of mass destruction was not 'American or British propaganda.'"


The WMD issue is also heating up in the United States, although President George W. Bush does not seem to be under as intense pressure as Tony Blair. "The New York Times" picked up the issue in one of its editorials yesterday.

The paper asks: "Was the intelligence cooked?" The editors write: "Like most Americans, we believed the government's repeated warnings that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction threatened the security of the world. The urgent need to disarm Saddam Hussein was the primary reason invoked for going to war in March rather than waiting to see if weapons inspectors could bring Iraq's chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs under control."

But, the "Times" says, "given the failure so far to find a single weapon of mass destruction, it is fair to wonder if intelligence analysts might have misread the available data, played down ambiguities or even pushed their findings too far to stay square with Bush policy on Iraq."

The "Times" concludes: "The issue goes to the heart of American leadership. Mr. Bush's belief that the United States has the right to use force against nations that it believes may threaten American security is based on the assumption that Washington can make accurate judgments about how serious such a danger is." If the intelligence is wrong or distorted, the paper concludes, "the United States will squander its credibility."


British papers today set aside space to debate the question of whether the U.K. should adopt the European Union's common currency, the euro. The issue has vexed Prime Minister Blair's government for years and today, British Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown is expected to announce the country is not yet ready to join the euro but is keeping the door open. The issue of abandoning the pound in favor of the euro is unpopular with the general public, although many in Blair's government -- including probably the prime minister himself -- believe the country must sooner or later choose the euro if it is to become a full partner in the EU.

The "Independent" carries a long commentary in favor of euro entry -- saying the decision is about "so much more" than joining the euro. It says: "Although the 'Independent' has always believed the economic case is compelling, joining the euro has never been simply about [the economy]. It is a political decision to take our place at the heart of Europe, [as] full and equal partners in a noble ideal."

The "Independent" blames Blair for not pushing harder for the euro over the more reluctant Brown, saying the prime minister's inaction, among other things, has allowed anti-EU feelings to take root: "Mr. Brown's jealous grip on the euro decision, and the prime minister's failure to loosen it, have paralyzed the government. This paralysis has left a vacuum that has been filled by endless speculation about divisions between [the two men] -- and scare stories about Europe. The anti-European press has taken every chance to confuse the euro issue with xenophobic reporting of asylum, French opposition to the war and alarmist interpretations of the new EU constitution."

The "Independent" says: "History, we suspect, will not be kind to [Blair] over his failure to assert the national interest over Mr. Brown's ambition. Mr. Blair's own ambition to be a leader in Europe has -- after the divisions over war in Iraq -- suffered a second crushing reverse."

But the real tragedy, the paper concludes, is that the British national interest is being so badly served. The story of Britain's relationship with the European Union and its precursors, the "Independent" says, is a series of missed opportunities. This is yet another one.


London's "Sunday Times" takes an opposing point of view. The paper, in an editorial yesterday, says "Forget the euro." Pointing to Britain's positive economic performance in the past few years, it argues: "Why the government should even be contemplating [euro] entry, let alone taking steps to bring it about, is a mystery." The Times continues: "[The government] should be proud of its economic record, which is demonstrably superior to that of the euro economies." Who, the paper asks, "would swap the Bank of England's steady hand for that of the clumsy European central bank? Or swap Britain's plight for that of Germany, once Europe's mightiest economy but now, shackled by the euro, seemingly in terminal decline?"


Newspapers today consider the decision of Polish voters over the weekend to support their country's entry into the European Union. Poles -- in spite of earlier concerns over low voter turnout -- appear to have backed EU entry in a referendum. Papers generally praise the decision but say it was not made without some reluctance on the part of voters.

Britain's "Daily Telegraph" points out that Poland had little economic choice but to join the EU. "The EU," the paper says, is -- quote -- "a ruthless commercial neighbor. Since the end of the Cold War, it has imposed stricter quotas on Polish exports than it did during the 1970s. Outside the EU, Poles would have carried on being squashed between two large trading blocs."

Still, the "Daily Telegraph" says, enthusiasm for EU entry was not widespread: "While many [voters] trudged obediently to the polling stations after Mass yesterday, there was no hiding their reluctance. Poles understand the agony of foreign rule better than most. After finally winning their independence in 1918, they were occupied first by the Nazis and then by the USSR." The paper says: "Having lived through all this, they are [understandably] unwilling to contract out their sovereignty to a foreign capital yet again."


The London "Times" points out that Poles voted in favor of the EU in spite of the fact that Brussels in recent days seems "almost deliberately" to have offended them. The "Times:" "As negotiations in Brussels entered the final fraught stretch, more and more obstacles were raised to Polish entry, ranging from the cost of supporting Polish agriculture to a determination to prevent cheap Polish labor undercutting Western workers. Europe's politicians also showed a less than friendly face: Germany's former support became distinctly cooler, while [French] President [Jacques] Chirac's haughty warning to Poland not to side with Washington over Iraq caused offense."

The "Times" says, however, that Europe needs Poland -- as much, perhaps, as Poland may need the EU -- as a counterweight to what the paper sees as an anti-U.S. tilt in Brussels. With its stance on Iraq, for example, the "Times" says: "Poland has given proof it has a clear view of how Europe must develop -- as a partner, not a rival, of the United States."


In other commentary, Switzerland's "Neue Zuercher Zeitung" takes a look at the Middle East and prospects for the "road map" to peace agreed on last week by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas. Commentator Naomi Bubis says many in Israel have expressed doubt over Sharon's real intentions by agreeing to the road map and its pledge to create an independent Palestinian state.

According to Bubis, Israelis tend to see Sharon's promises according to their own respective beliefs. Sharon's critics, on the one hand, say Sharon's verbal support for the road map is, "camouflage." In other words, she writes, some in Israel believe Sharon is acting under American pressure and wants to ingratiate himself with the U.S. in order to gain financial credit and military aid.

Bubis writes that, for them, "Sharon has changed his vocabulary but not his ideology." On the other hand, she says, many Israelis believe that Sharon is "exchanging land for peace, preventing a civil war and guaranteeing Israel's security."


The British daily "The Guardian" today calls for more support for Afghan Transitional President Hamid Karzai. The paper says: "Mr. Karzai's symbolic and practical role in providing a bulwark against these forces of reaction and intolerance is vital. The U.S. needs Mr. Karzai to succeed if its gains in the 'war on terror' are not to be squandered."

The "Guardian" says: "All of [this] begs the question why the West is not doing more in practical terms to assist him." The paper says, wealthy countries -- particularly the U.S. -- need to provide more financial support. It adds that U.S. troops should join forces with international peacekeepers in expanding operations across the country when NATO takes charge in August.

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

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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.