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Western Press Review: Re-Engaging Key Mideast Players, The Loss Of American Moral Authority, And Balkan Progress

Prague, 9 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Media analysts and commentators today discuss: reopening dialogue with key Mideast states in a bid to ensure success in Iraq; the loss of American moral authority as a consequence of U.S. unilateral militarism in Iraq; progress in the Balkans, eight years after the Dayton Peace Agreement; and continuing speculation in the Caucasus -- Is Azerbaijan's president already dead?

THE NEW YORK TIMES: Writing in "The New York Times," columnist Thomas Friedman says Iraq is the pivotal point of the Middle East. And if U.S. President George W. Bush really wants to achieve his objectives in that country, he may have to support opening talks with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Iran's conservative Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Israel continues to face the unprecedented "madness" of suicide bombers, Friedman writes, "but every military strategy [Israeli Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon has tried has failed." Perhaps the only way Israel can find its way out of this predicament is "by trying anew to do business with Mr. Arafat -- indirectly, through his new prime minister, Ahmed Qurei." As for Syria, Damascus is now convinced that it is next on America's war list. Friedman suggests the U.S. administration should open a high-level strategic dialogue with Damascus, pledging nonaggression if Syria helps crack down on the militants and arms streaming into Iraq. Iran, too, is concerned about a possible U.S. invasion, and Friedman suggests renewed dialogue with Tehran might convince Iran to use its "considerable influence among some Iraqi Shiites to help stabilize Iraq." The U.S. administration must now decide whether U.S. interests can best be served through aggression or by trying to engage key Middle East actors "to maximize the chances of success in Iraq." Friedman says, "Trying to remake Iraq is hard enough -- trying to do it with the opposition of all the neighbors would be even harder."

LOS ANGELES TIMES: In a contribution to the "Los Angeles Times," Rami Khouri of the Beirut-based "Daily Star" says the "unilateral American militarism" used to effect regime change in Iraq has led to some "predictable consequences." By launching aggression against another sovereign state -- acting virtually alone and without a UN mandate -- the United States "has forfeited the right to criticize other countries when they do the same thing." The United States has thus lost much of its moral authority around the world and "now finds itself with little authority to tell others what to do." This shift in America's global role "became strikingly clear this week when Israel [on 5 October] attacked what it said was a Palestinian guerrilla training camp in Syria." The first such incident between the two neighbors in decades, Khouri says Israel's action was a clear "escalation of the Middle East conflict." And yet, "the U.S. was virtually silent, confining itself to saying that Israel had the right to self-defense but that it should be careful."

The tendency of Washington's neoconservatives to use "military muscle to address political and economic problems [means] the U.S. must increasingly interact with other states primarily on the strength of its military and economic clout, rather than its powerful moral values and political principles." Khouri says the global influence of the United States is now "shackled by the consequences of its own militarism, unilateralism, and arrogance."

JANE'S FOREIGN REPORT: An analysis in "Jane's Foreign Report" says Azerbaijan's 15 October presidential elections could mark the first case of "dynastic succession" in the former Soviet Union. Ailing 80-year-old President Heidar Aliyev remains in a U.S. clinic for treatment and has not been seen publicly since 8 July. Some sources within the Azerbaijani opposition have claimed he is already dead, although the Aliyev administration says he is making a good recovery.

An Aliyev statement released on 2 October said the president would not be seeking re-election after all and urged his followers to vote for his son, Ilham, the current prime minister. But instead of the president personally delivering this key announcement, the television broadcast consisted of an announcer reading the message on air. "Jane's" says, "This could mean nothing more than that the president was too ill to make a video or did not want to reveal the ravages wrought by his illness." Some sources claim that Ilham tampered with his father's announcement and that certain officials are holding the elder Aliyev's real statement, which they might consider using against Ilham.

But behind all "allegations and countercharges," "Jane's" says, "the peace and stability of the region could depend on [Ilham] Aliyev's fate in the election." Officials in neighboring Armenia recently stated that the younger Aliyev's election would provide the best chance for coming to an agreement with Baku over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. But the same day, Ilham Aliyev said if a peaceful settlement is not reached, Azerbaijan is prepared to take Karabakh by force.

LOS ANGELES TIMES: A contribution to the "Los Angeles Times" by Rajan Menon and Henri Barkey of Lehigh University cautions that "recruiting Turkey to help stabilize Iraq will create more problems than it solves." Ankara on 7 October approved the deployment of Turkish troops to serve under U.S. command in Iraq. The authors say that for Turkey, the agreement does more than help mend relations with Washington, which were damaged by Ankara's refusal to allow U.S. troops to stage military incursions into Iraq from Turkish soil. It also gives Turkey "a military presence in Iraq to handle what the Turks consider their worst-case scenario: the fragmentation of Iraq and the rise [of] an Iraqi Kurdish state" that stirs Turkey's own restive -- and considerable -- Kurdish population. If Iraq implodes, "Turkish forces will be on location and able to enter northern Iraq with ease."

The U.S. administration's hopes that the Turkish deployment will inspire other Muslim states to play a role in Iraq are misplaced, the authors say. Iraq was once a part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, they point out, and neighboring states are likely to "view a Turkish military foothold as the beginning of a gambit aimed at extending Ankara's influence at their expense. The Iranians, in particular, will step up their covert operations among Iraq's Shia population, and that will draw others in. With its political future already up for grabs, Iraq can ill afford a free-for-all among its covetous neighbors."

WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE: The "Wall Street Journal Europe" runs a joint contribution today by Richard Holbrooke, former U.S. ambassador to the UN and a chief negotiator of the 1995 Dayton peace agreement, and Bernard Kouchner, founder of Doctors Without Borders and the first chief UN administrator in Kosovo. The authors are writing after a recent visit to the Balkans, their first in three years. In short, they say, Bosnia is doing "better than expected," although it still faces "massive" obstacles. Kosovo remains in limbo, due to the lack of a resolution on its final status. And Serbia is slowly beginning to reconcile itself with "the realities of modern Europe."

Bosnia is proof that "if the international community sees it through, this tortured country may be able to knit itself together." But the remaining challenges "should not be understated." The economy remains weak and unemployment is high. Nevertheless, Bosnia "can reasonably be described as a success story. [The] single most overriding issue is [for the West] to finish the job."

As for Kosovo, as long as its final status remains undetermined, the international community -- as in NATO and the UN -- "seems stuck." Serbia is now showing signs that it is moving "toward a future in which Brussels, not Kosovo, is the goal. For it is clear: Serbia cannot have both Kosovo and Europe."

Holbrooke and Kouchner urge both Europe and America "not to break the partnership that has worked so well in Bosnia." They say success not only in the Balkans but in Afghanistan and Iraq requires the sort of trans-Atlantic cooperation that could be seen after the Dayton agreement was signed in 1995.

BOSTON GLOBE: An editorial today says, "Given the rhetoric of what [U.S.] President George W. Bush calls a war on terrorism, it was practically impossible for him to be critical of the [5 October] Israeli bombing of an empty site near Damascus where several terrorist groups once trained." Thus, Bush "finds himself having to back [Israeli Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon's message to the Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad, even though the Syrians have shared intelligence about Al-Qaeda, employing their own rough methods of interrogation on Al-Qaeda captives and relaying the information to the CIA [U.S. Central Intelligence Agency]."

But both Sharon and al-Assad "are playing a dangerous game," says the "Boston Globe." Syria continues to harbor several Palestinian militant groups and Lebanon's Hezbollah, and is refusing to crack down on militants slipping through its border with Iraq. As for Sharon, the paper says he "should be discouraged from dragging surrounding countries into the maelstrom of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."

Damascus should be getting the same message "[from] Washington, Cairo, Amman, and Riyadh" -- that it must stop "using terrorists to blackmail neighbors." And Sharon "should be told to make it clear that Israel's occupation will end as soon as Palestinian terrorism ends."