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Commentary Week in Review

Friday, Jan. 12, 2007

The WPR Commentary Week in Review is posted every Friday. Drawing from more than two dozen English-language news outlets worldwide, the column highlights at least one notable op-ed from each day of the week.

This week, commentary about Bush's mid-week speech to the U.S. public on Iraq strategy dominated the opinion pages. On Sunday, John McCain tried to set to the tone for the week's debate on Iraq with an op-ed in the Washington Post titled "Send More Troops."

"Contrary to popular notions that U.S. troops are getting 'caught in the crossfire' between Sunni and Shiite fighters and are therefore ineffective in suppressing the incipient civil war, the record of U.S. troops in stopping sectarian violence is excellent," McCain wrote. "Where American soldiers have deployed to areas in turmoil, including Baghdad neighborhoods, the violence has ceased almost immediately. Similarly, the Marines in Anbar province report substantial progress in reducing the nonsectarian, al-Qaeda-based violence that is the predominant cause of instability there.

"There are two keys to any increase in U.S. force levels: It must be substantial, and it must be sustained. During my recent trip, commanders there spoke to me of adding as many as five brigades (brigades consist of 3,500 to 5,000 troops) in Baghdad and one or two in Anbar province. This is the minimum we should consider."

On Monday, another former U.S. military man and presidential candidate, retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark, weighed in against the idea that a surge of U.S. forces in Iraq will make much difference. Instead, in his Washington Post piece, Clark advocated for an invigorated diplomatic effort:

"Dealing with meddling neighbors is an essential element of resolving the conflict in Iraq. But this requires more than border posts and threatening statements," Clark wrote. "The administration needs a new strategy for the region, before Iran gains nuclear capabilities. While the military option must remain on the table, America should take the lead with direct diplomacy to resolve the interrelated problems of Iran's push for regional hegemony and nuclear power, the struggle for control of Lebanon, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Isolating our adversaries hasn't worked."

Tuesday's most noteworthy opinion essay examined another Middle East conflict, the one between the Israelis and Palestinians. Like so much debate about that conflict, former Clinton administration Middle East envoy Dennis Ross focused on history. Specifically, Ross took issue with former President Jimmy Carter's depiction of Clinton administration peacemaking efforts in Carter's recent book.

". . . since the talks fell apart, there has emerged a mythology that seeks to defend Mr. Arafat's rejection of the Clinton ideas by suggesting they weren't real or they were too vague or that Palestinians would have received far less than what had been advertised. Mr. Arafat himself tried to defend his rejection of the Clinton proposals by later saying he was not offered even 90 percent of the West Bank or any of East Jerusalem. But that was myth, not reality.

"Why is it important to set the record straight? Nothing has done more to perpetuate the conflict between Arabs and Israelis than the mythologies on each side. The mythologies about who is responsible for the conflict (and about its core issues) have taken on a life of their own. They shape perception. They allow each side to blame the other while avoiding the need to face up to its own mistakes. So long as myths are perpetuated, no one will have to face reality."

Outside of the Middle East, the most ubiquitous issue in this week's opinion pages was the conflict in Somalia. Wednesday saw the publication, in Britain's Daily Telegraph, of one of the few op-eds that took a positive view of U.S. involvement in Somalia, and in particular this week's U.S. bombing of al-Qaida targets in the African nation. Con Coughlin called the bombing a welcome victory in the war on terror:

"Given the remoteness of the target attacked on Sunday by a US Special Forces AC-130 gunship, it could be several weeks before American commanders will be able to confirm the casualty account from Sunday's surgical strike," Coughlin wrote. "But having waited nearly five years for an opportunity to target the most deadly al-Qa'eda terror cell operating on the African continent, American commanders were last night quietly confident that they had struck a major blow against the organisation's operational effectiveness."

. . .

"Initial reports suggest that Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, the mastermind of the Nairobi and Dar es Salaam embassy bombings, was killed in the raid, together with several other key al-Qa'eda figures.

"But more importantly for the Americans, and all those other countries, such as Britain, that are deeply involved in the global terror war, the very fact that al-Qa'eda terrorists and their Somali allies have been forced to undertake a hasty retreat from the Somali capital represents a significant victory in the coalition's attempts to keep the curse of militant Islam at bay."

On Thursday, writing in the Christian Science Monitor, John K. Cooley took a more circumspect view of U.S. military involvement in the Horn of Africa:

"The [Pentagon's] new African Command has other backup base facilities that could support regional war operations. But sending quantities of the overstretched US military forces in support of any Somali or other African government is something Washington should most definitely not do.

"Instead, Washington should work with all of its African and European allies to support African peacekeepers. It should keep its promises of renewed economic and humanitarian aid, and do everything possible to discourage new proxy wars in Africa."

But the op-ed pages on Thursday were dominated by another, even more controversial, subject involving the U.S. military. Days before the fifth anniversary of the opening of terrorist detentions centers at the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, anti-Guantanamo activists seemed to have waged a coordinated public relations campaign via U.S. newspaper opinion pages.

To wit: "A Voice from Gitmo's Darkness," by Jummah al-Dossari in the Los Angeles Times; "Trapped at Guantanamo" by Melissa Hoffer in the Boston Globe; and "Shut Down Guantanamo," by Helena Cobban in the Christian Science Monitor, all of which appeared on Thursday.

Hoffer's piece provides a sample of the flavor of all three:

"No matter how hard one wishes, the bars of a steel cage do not stop time. No one is more aware of this fact than Lakhdar Boumediene, Mohammed Nechla, Mustafa Ait Idir, Hadj Boudella, Belkacem Bensayah, and Saber Lahmar -- six Bosnian Algerian men imprisoned at Guantanamo whom my colleagues and I have represented since July 2004, in a habeas corpus case, Boumediene v. Bush, challenging their detention . Today marks the fifth anniversary of the date the United States first began to fly plane loads of prisoners to Guantanamo. Our clients arrived on Jan. 20, 2002.

"This time last year, Hadj's 6 -year-old daughter, Saaima, died of congenital heart failure. He had not seen her since the fall of 2001, when he and the other five men were arrested by Bosnian authorities under pressure from the United States, which asserted that they were involved in planning terrorist activities in Bosnia. After a three-month investigation, the Bosnian federal prosecutor recommended to the Bosnian Supreme Court that all six be released. But again under heavy pressure from the United States, the Bosnians caved, and as the men were released from a jail in Sarajevo, the Bosnians turned them over to the United States. Hooded, shackled, and packed into waiting cars while their horrified families watched, they began the sickening odyssey that continues today."

Finally, on Friday, the wave of commentary about Bush's Iraq strategy finally built to its full power. Opinions about the new strategy differed of course, as did assessments about whether the strategy could even be called "new."

Anthony Cordesman, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment's respected military analyst, weighed in with a point-by-point breakdown of Bush's speech in the New York Times. Cordesman said the speech "raised more questions than it answered."

Zbigniew Brzezinski identified "Five Flaws in the President's Plan" in a piece in the Washington Post, though he said the speech "provided a more realistic analysis of the situation in Iraq than any previous presidential statement."

In the Wall Street Journal, Rudy Giuliani and New Gingrich argued the United States' focus should be on "Getting Iraq to Work."

Finally, writing in The Guardian, Simon Tisdall predicted that if the new plan for Iraq doesn't work, the president will blame Iran:

"If George Bush's remodelled strategy for halting the Iraq disaster fails to work, it is becoming clear where the US administration will point the finger of blame: Tehran. For some months Washington has been moving aggressively on a range of fronts to "pin back" Iran, in Tony Blair's words. But Mr Bush's Iraq policy speech on Wednesday night marked the opening of a new, far more aggressive phase which could extend the conflict into Iranian territory for the first time since the 2003 invasion."