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Western Press Review: U.S. Policy In Iraq After Helicopter Downing And Continuing Uncertainties In Russia

Prague, 4 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The major U.S. dailies all carry editorials looking at the political and military aftermath of the 2 November downing of a U.S. helicopter in Iraq, which killed 16 soldiers. It was the single bloodiest attack against U.S. forces since the war began in March and followed a U.S. claim the day before that attacks against its forces in Iraq were strategically insignificant.

Commentary also looks at the continuing uncertainties in Russia following the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovskii, the chief of the oil giant Yukos, among other topics.


"The New York Times," in an editorial titled "Difficult Days in Iraq," says the claim by America's top military commander in Iraq that the ongoing attacks by the Iraqi resistance are "strategically and operationally insignificant" looks increasingly untenable. "Instead, it seems that more terrible days like Sunday [2 November] lie ahead."

The paper says that, despite the helicopter attack, the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush has "rightly" vowed to stay in Iraq. Yet, the paper says, "The need to stand firm does not relieve Mr. Bush of the responsibility to tell the American people where their sacrifices are leading and how he expects to reach that goal."

The paper says Bush has not presented any plausible long-term exit strategy in Iraq and adds Congress should insist on an exit strategy before acquiescing to future installments of military spending. The papers adds that Bush "must give a better explanation of why his administration insists on keeping responsibility for administering Iraq so firmly in American hands."


"The Washington Post" today says the U.S. mission in Iraq is "a lonely fight." Its editorial reads: "Two months have gone by since the Bush administration embarked on an effort to attract greater international support for its mission in Iraq."

But despite the effort -- and at a time when violence in Iraq appears to be surging -- no fresh foreign troops are on their way. Moreover, the paper says, "The United Nations has all but withdrawn from Iraq, removing its remaining international staff from Baghdad. Other international aid groups, from the International Red Cross to Doctors Without Borders, are reducing their operations or pulling out."

The paper says the Bush administration has abruptly embraced a new strategy -- what the paper calls "Iraqification," that is the rapid buildup of local Iraqi police and paramilitary forces under U.S. tutelage. It says this policy may well produce better results, but it's worth considering why the attempt at multilateralism proved a failure.

The paper says the attackers have successfully exploited existing tensions between the Bush administration and U.S. allies and multinational institutions. The paper says many in the international community now "wish to see the U.S. mission isolated and punished -- and the Bush administration's intransigence has played into their hands."

The paper concludes that it "will now fall almost exclusively to U.S. soldiers to fight the insurgents in Baghdad and the Sunni triangle, and the United States will have to pay most of the cost of humanitarian relief and reconstruction in the coming year."


The "Los Angeles Times" also considers the theme of U.S. isolation in Iraq, but says recent statements by the U.S. administration that all is not going well in Iraq could prove helpful.

In an editorial titled "Humility, Candor in Iraq," the paper says: "President Bush boasted in July that if Iraqi resistance fighters thought they could attack U.S. troops, 'Bring them on.' Last week, with nearly 100 more U.S. soldiers killed since Bush's bluster, he acknowledged that Iraq is 'a dangerous place.' "

The paper says such "doses of humility and candor are a "welcome change from the prewar certitude that Iraqis would welcome invaders with open arms." The editorial continues: "Other nations understandably are reluctant to supply more troops for Iraq, but the U.S. needs help. Countries put off by Washington's earlier swagger may be more willing to help when they see a chastened administration, especially with the understanding that a foreign troop presence should be only temporary."


"The Wall Street Journal Europe" takes a different tack. It points out in its editorial on Iraq -- "Fickle Interventionists" -- that the real target of the Iraqi attacks are liberal opinion-makers in the media and in Washington.

The paper says: "Some of our elites are losing their nerve." It continues: "This is precisely the goal of the terrorists in Iraq. [Their] car bombs and rocket attacks are destructive and terrifying, but not a serious military threat. The guerrilla insurgency remains leaderless, with no great power support and largely confined to the Sunni Triangle surrounding Baghdad."

In short, the paper says, Iraq is not in "chaos" or on the verge of a popular uprising, and this anti-guerrilla war is clearly winnable.

The paper concedes that Bush's handling of the war is "fair game for criticism" but says these are questions of execution rather than the basic U.S. purpose in Iraq. The "Journal" concludes by saying that the stakes in Iraq are so large that perhaps even our "fickle liberal elites" will yet conclude that the U.S. can't afford to fail.


Britain's "Financial Times" turns its attention to Afghanistan in an editorial titled "Saving Afghanistan."

The paper writes: "Nearly two years after the fall of the Taliban, Afghanistan is once again in danger of becoming a failed state." The writ of Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai, notwithstanding his undoubted courage, "barely extends beyond the city limits of Kabul, the capital. At the same time, militia commanders and warlords -- upon whom the U.S. and its allies over-depended in the 2001 war -- not only control big swaths of the country but also barely cooperate with Kabul and are once again warring against each other. In this security vacuum, the neo-medievalist Taliban and its Al-Qaeda allies are beginning to regroup."

The paper adds: "Nearly all these factions, as well as elements in the weak central government, are being financed by a bumper crop of opium poppies."

The paper says Afghanistan risks becoming a failed state at the most volatile crossroads in the world. To avoid this, it says the "U.S. and its allies must strengthen Karzai and give him the means to gain control of his country...The [international security force] must be beefed up, but, above all, the U.S., the U.K. and France must accelerate efforts to build an Afghan army."

Otherwise, the paper says, milestones such as yesterday's publication of a new draft constitution will be academic. And the war on the Taliban might as well never have happened.


Germany's "Die Welt" looks at parliamentary elections in Georgia, where President Eduard Shevardnadze's party appears to have emerged as the single largest party in a vote marred by irregularities and possibly fraud.

Stefanie Bolzen writes that although Shevardnadze's "For a New Georgia" bloc appears to have won the election, taking about 24 percent of votes in preliminary results, the results were "surprisingly negative" for the president. She points out that support for the party is down from the nearly 42 percent it won during the last parliamentary ballot in 1999, whereas the opposition leader Mikhail Saakashvili gained 22 percent.

Bolzen says the results reflect the prevailing grim mood in the country and the fact that half the population lives below the poverty line. The economic reforms since independence have hit the poorest sections of the population the hardest. Moreover, Georgia, according to investigations by the Transparency International corruption watchdog, ranks among the most corrupt European countries.

Despite the outcome, Shevardnadze has taken an optimistic tone, saying "the main thing is that elections took place at all." Bolzen writes that the results leave open for now the "serious matter" of who will win the presidential election in 2005.


Columnist David Ignatius of "The Washington Post" takes a look at the controversy swirling around Russian businessman Mikhail Khodorkovskii, who was arrested 10 days ago for alleged fraud and tax invasion while leading the Yukos oil company. The arrest has prompted concern that conservative forces in Russia -- through President Vladimir Putin -- are cracking down on capitalism. The Kremlin, on the other hand, says it merely upholding law and order.

Ignatius, in effect, says either view could be correct and that the answer -- "cynically and correctly" -- depends on how long Khodorkovskii held his shares. Ignatius points out that throughout history, capitalists have gained their holdings through dubious means, but that over time this becomes irrelevant. Ignatius: "If [Khodorkovskii's holdings] have acquired a sufficient patina of age, then he's a capitalist. He may have originally acquired his property by dubious means, but that's the case with many large fortunes around the world. At some point, it becomes irrelevant."

Ignatius says the problem now is a difference of opinion over whether Khodorkovskii held his property long enough for it to have passed from "loot" to "capital." Ignatius says the international financial community regards Khodorkovskii as a capitalist, while the Russian people see him as thief.

Ignatius says that -- in his opinion -- it's time for Russia to accept the oligarchs as capitalists. He says Khodorkovskii and his friends can give Russia the financial growth and stability it needs. Putin, for his part, can grant the oligarchs the legitimacy they need.

"That," he says, "sounds like a deal that's in everyone's interest."


"The Moscow Times" today is less charitable about Khodorkovskii's arrest and statements by Putin that it will not lead to a general rollback in the privatizations of the 1990s. It calls its editorial: "Putin's Word Not Always His Bond" -- a headline that could also be rendered "Putin Can't Always Be Trusted."

The paper writes that Putin's explanations to Western and Russian businessmen -- his attempts at "damage control" on Yukos -- "seem to have been an unmitigated success, judging by the upbeat comments and the positive reaction of the market in the past few days."

The paper says Putin is a "slick act" and "adept at tailoring his message to suit his audience."

However, "The Moscow Times" says Putin cannot simply be taken at his word that the action against Yukos will not spread to other companies and that there will be no general revision of privatization results. "The Moscow Times" points to previous promises Putin has made and broken -- one concerning the sale of Gazprom shares and the other in support of independent media in a 2001 meeting with NTV journalists. This, the paper says, "was not exactly borne out by the later actions of the Putin administration."

The paper asks: "How can one say with any degree of certainty that the whole process will not be repeated against another oligarch half a year or a year from now?"

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