Rumsfeld's blunt talk offends allies


Published: Friday, January 24, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 23, 2003 at 9:16 p.m.

WASHINGTON - Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's blunt talk made him a celebrity in the early months of the anti-terror war, but his more recent comments are coming back to bite in the more complicated run-up to a possible war with Iraq.

Rumsfeld offended NATO allies France and Germany this week and Vietnam veterans earlier this month.

While the defense secretary said he was sorry veterans were offended by his voicing disdain for draftees' contributions, he's not backing down on comments calling France and Germany part of "old Europe" and "a problem" in their opposition to military action in Iraq.

U.S. officials are trying to rally international support for possible military action against Iraq this week ran up against opposition from Germany and France, which said United Nations inspectors must be given more time to look for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Both NATO allies are on the United Nations Security Council which could vote to authorize a military strike, and France is one of the five nations with veto power.

In a press conference with foreign journalists Wednesday, a Dutch reporter asked Rumsfeld why "it seems that a lot of Europeans would rather give the benefit of the doubt to Saddam Hussein than President George Bush."

"You're thinking of Europe as Germany and France," Rumsfeld replied. "I don't. I think that's old Europe. . . . Germany has been a problem, and France has been a problem. But you look at vast numbers of other countries in Europe - they're not with France and Germany on this, they're with the United States."

French Finance Minister Francis Mer said he was "profoundly vexed" by Rumsfeld's remarks. "Our position is not a problem, it is a constructive contribution," German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said.

A Republican senator joined the fray Thursday, saying the United States must assure the world it is patient and responsible.

"You don't do that with glancing blow, condescending remarks," said Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Alienating important allies is a bad idea, especially when the United States appears to be on the brink of war, said Ivo Daalder, a former National Security Council member in the Clinton administration.

"I think this is a Rumsfeldian moment in which he once again shows his true colors, which is a fundamental belief that allies don't matter," Daalder said. "The only ones that matter are those countries that completely agree with what the United States says and does."

The controversies are a bit unexpected for Rumsfeld, who usually chooses his words carefully and is not prone to saying anything unintended. Rumsfeld's top spokeswoman said Thursday he has no regrets.

"It's the truth," Victoria Clarke said. "More people should be willing to step up to the plate and deal with the truth."

Michael O'Hanlon, a military analyst at the liberal Brookings Institution think tank, agreed.

"The French and Germans need to be challenged. They're getting a little smug over there in their anti-Americanism," O'Hanlon said.

Veterans' groups and some congressional Democrats complained earlier this month after Rumsfeld gave a spirited defense of the all-volunteer military.

Under the draft, Rumsfeld said, conscripts were inducted, trained and then released after two years, "adding no value, no advantage, really, to the United States armed services over any sustained period of time."

Critics said Rumsfeld was dismissing draftees as useless and noted that more than 20,000 conscripts died in the Vietnam War. In a written statement Tuesday, Rumsfeld apologized to "any veteran who misinterpreted my remarks."

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