- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 22, 2003

Insider notes from United Press International for Jan. 22 …

Could NATO be run by an ex-Communist? The news that Secretary-General George Robertson has turned down pleas to remain an extra year has started a furious hunt for a successor. Front-runner is Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski, if this reformed ex-communist who led his country into NATO is prepared to forego the remainder of his presidential term, which ends in 2005. The first problem is that with the enlarged NATO drifting from a hard-edged military alliance aimed against the old Soviet Union into a much softer trans-Atlantic security system that includes Russia, NATO needs a high-profile and determined new leader to remain focused, relevant and useful to the crucial partner — the United States. The second problem is that after Kwasniewski, the next candidates being mentioned are Norway's defense or foreign ministers, a former Danish defense minister — or just possibly Portugal's ex-premier Antonio Gutteres. With the last four NATO chiefs being British (Robertson), Spanish (Javier Solana) and German (Manfred Woerner) and British (Peter Carrington), the smaller countries (and Italy) are saying it's their turn. Only a new NATO member state such as Poland could trump that appeal — and the Bush administration likes Kwasniewski, who not only promises Polish participation in a war on Iraq even without a U.N. mandate, but also agrees with Bush on abortion. One possible wild card is former (conservative) German Defense Minister Volker Ruehe.

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The French, who remain outside NATO's joint military command, are not in the running for the NATO job. But they are doing stunningly well in arms sales, reaching agreement on a $2 billion deal to sell India the technology to build six Scorpene 1,600-ton diesel submarines in the state-run docks of Mazagaon in Bombay. The etiquette of arms deals (yes, there is such a thing) normally frowns on selling to both sides in a conflict zone and France was also building Agosta submarines for Pakistan. But after the slaughter of 11 French naval engineers in Karachi by terrorists last year, the Pakistan deal has been frozen — opening the way for France to turn to New Delhi. This is a neat pirouette, likely to be repeated if the French are right to be confident about the prospect of selling India 136 Mirage warplanes.

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Better still for French arms traders, the word from London is that the Ministry of Defense has recommended that the French-based Thales group be chosen over BAE Systems (formerly British Aerospace) to be lead contractor on the $5 billion deal to build Britain's two new aircraft carriers. The decision is to be made at Thursday's Cabinet meeting — which may go for BAE on the grounds that it is slightly more British, even though the defense industry is awash with rumors of merger talks between BAE and Boeing. Whether BAE (most of whose shareholders are no longer British) or Thales (which bought Britain's Racal defense electronics group and now claims to be just as British as BAE) get the contract, the carriers will be built at Rosyth in Scotland and most of the money will stay in the United Kingdom. But as the decision goes to Cabinet, the decision becomes intensely political — and France's recent threat of a U.N. veto against an Anglo-American military campaign against Iraq may become a factor.

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There was just one problem with Argentina's former President Carlos Menem's plans for an Evita-style political comeback. In a land where image is everything, Menem two years ago emulated former dictator Juan Peron by taking his own Evita — marrying a 36-year-old Chilean blonde — and former Miss Universe — Cecilia Bolocco. At the time that the happy couple wed, the Argentinean media was full of jokes and cartoons about the questionable virility of the groom. Unfortunately for Menem, in a land where impregnating your spouse is a symbol of machismo, the couple has remained childless. But Menem is fixing that. The Chilean media has just spilled the beans that the couple is being treated in an infertility clinic out of sight in Santiago, Chile. It is unclear if Menem's efforts are bearing fruit, political or otherwise — current polls give him a 10-percent rating.

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The Palestinian Authority is exploring new depths of bad taste with the outrageous decision to name a schools soccer tournament after Abdel Baset Odeh, the Hamas suicide bomber who killed 30 Israelis with last year's terrorist attack on the Park Hotel in Netanya. It was the horror that provoked Ariel Sharon's government to launch Operation Defensive Shield into the Palestinian territories. And now seven Palestinian school teams (each one named after a different suicide bomber) will compete in Tulkarim for the Odeh trophy. This being the Middle East, once the outrage is swallowed, observers will then wonder why Yasser Arafat's PA is honoring a Hamas militant?

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