US charm offensive falls flat at Davos

TRYING TO MOVE ON: Washington's tone at this year's meeting has been more conciliatory, but critics are still wary of the administration's inclination to shoot first

AFP , DAVOS, SWITZERLAND

Mon, Jan 26, 2004 - Page 4

Top US officials went in to the world's largest talkfest here trying to show a kinder, gentler face but still ran up against critics wary of the superpower's tough pre-emptive policies.

Five days of non-stop debate among the political and business elite attending the World Economic Forum here produced mixed results for the Americans who were clearly eager to heal divisions from the Iraq war.

Even allies such as Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf acknowledged the US still had work to do to resolve political issues, which he said fueled an "increasing sense of alienation in the Muslim world."

"I am afraid the healing touch has not really started," Musharraf told reporters outside the annual forum which brought more than 2,200 top decision-makers to this Swiss ski resort.

A year after the Americans drew considerable flak at Davos for pushing their plans to invade Iraq, even alone if necessary, the US delegation led by Vice President Dick Cheney this year has worked hard to set a conciliatory tone.

"Cooperation among our governments and effective international institutions are even more important today than they have been in the past," said Cheney, considered a principal architect of Washington's muscular posture.

He made a particular appeal to the European countries such as France and Germany, which opposed the war most fiercely, urging them to help rebuild Iraq, defuse Iran's nuclear ambitions and promote international security.

US Attorney General John Ashcroft insisted the US "is not an aggressor" and foreswore a major pitch for the war on terrorism in favor of a call to arms against global corruption that few here could dispute.

Secretary of Commerce Donald Evans moved to assuage fears over a ballooning US budget deficit that unchecked could have serious consequences for interest and exchange rates across the world.

Evans called the shortfall both "very manageable" and "affordable," and he pledged it would be brought down by some "very, very tough decisions on spending."

Some critics of US President George W. Bush's administration saw the milder US tone as acknowledgement that "unilateralism wasn't working," as Democratic US congressman Sander Levin said.

"I think what's happened is they have shifted ground without saying that they are," Levin said after Cheney's speech. "How much they are really shifting remains to be seen."

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami said here that he had seen a new tone from the administration that had famously included his Islamic republic in the "axis of evil" threatening the world with mass destruction.

But he added, "I hope the changes we have witnessed in tone used by the United States will not be a tactical ploy but a real strategic change in policies and attitudes."

Despite the US attempts to tread more lightly, Washington was not spared some harsh words at Davos, notably from UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, whose help it is now seeking to sort out the aftermath of the Iraq war.

Annan warned that the US focus on security had diverted attention from critical development issues facing the world and risked reducing the collective security system to "brute competition based on the laws of the jungle."

He said if global terrorism threatened peace and communal harmony, "the war against terrorism can sometimes aggravate those tensions, as well as raising concerns about the protection of human rights and civil liberties."

Critics from the Muslim world branded the US as hypocritical for preaching the spread of democracy in the Middle East while continuing to back Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories.

Even the widely touted economic recovery in the US attracted suspicion from officials and economic pundits alike.

Stephan Roach, chief economist at Morgan Stanley, said the Americans were getting the headlines for what is in some respects an "artificial recovery" compared to the real growth registered in countries like China.

"We are doing it at the cost of lots of structural imbalances and a lack of job recreation and an economy that is running on cash cuts and debt," he said.