No Rumsfeld to Munich

It has already been well-publicized that President Bush’s first foreign trip of his second term in office will be at the end of next month, an excursion to Europe. He’ll be starting off in Brussels, to try to start mending fences with those of America’s NATO allies who became somewhat estranged over the disagreement concerning the United States’ determination in spring of 2003 to Iraq with its “Coalition of the Willing.” That “Coalition,” you’ll recall, included nations (most notably Britain) which some think should have shown rather more solidarity on the question with their other EU brethren.

But the President’s engagement was supposed to have been preceded by an appearance by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld at the yearly Munich Security Conference (this year on 12-13 February). Now Rumsfeld has sent word that he won’t be coming, reports Munich’s Süddeutsche Zeitung (Rumsfeld Cancels Participation at Security Conference).

This definitely raises eyebrows, as the conference ranks among those which nearly “everyone” attends – granted, not generally including the current US President, but including for sure figures such as the German Chancellor and UN Secretary General, in addition to Ministers of Defense from all over the globe. And this meeting is when notable things happen, where even sparks fly, as has been seen there in the past. For example, for those of you with a taste for ancient history, the Munich Conference was where prominent US Senators (usually Democratic: Mike Mansfield, Sam Nunn) would regularly show up to wield the threat of a full or partial withdrawal of US forces from Europe (back in the days of the Cold War) if Europeans did not start to pony up more of their own manpower and resources in the cause of their own defense. More recently, and spectacularly, Munich in February, 2003, was also where German Foreign Secretary Joschka Fischer told Rumsfeld straight-up, interrupting his address to speak in English, that “I’m just not convinced” by the American case against Saddam Hussein. That was also where Rumsfeld first brought forth for public airing his famous distinction between “Old Europe” and “New Europe.”

So what could possibly move the Secretary of Defense to cancel his participation in this year’s conference, in view of what has at least been declared to be the Bush II administration’s incipient diplomatic offensive to win Europe back to its side? He pleads “prior commitments,” but we can swiftly lump that excuse together in the same plausibility category as Bernard Kerik’s illegally-compensated babysitter; as I say, this is a big event in the international defense calendar, and it happens every year, always in the same early-February slot. For all of the (few) English-language news sources covering this affair which a Google search will turn up for you, the answer is clear: It’s all about the fact that a criminal complaint has been filed against him in a German court accusing him of war crimes, and taking advantage of the “universal competence” which the German legal system reserves for itself in such cases, meaning it can prosecute anyone in the world for war crimes if German government officials can somehow lure the accused onto German soil to apprehend him or her.


But the SZ article (credited to the AP and to the dpa, or the German press-agency) is rather more demure about this theory. Horst Teltschik, the German official in charge of the conference, is quoted as telling another Munich newspaper, “The legal case was not brought forward as an argument. But it certainly wasn’t very helpful.” Well, but he wouldn’t bring the legal case forward as an argument, would he? And, in any case, as the SZ article reports, Rumsfeld had already made his position clear last month, letting the German government know that it should not expect him to show up in Munich if there were even “the appearance of an investigation” into him, presumably preparatory to an eventual indictment. Now, there is certainly no such investigation currently going on; rather, German federal prosecutors are still deciding whether such an investigation is called for. (And you can expect that this decision-making process is not necessarily confining its deliberations to the mere facts of the case.) But is that enough for the “appearance”? It seems so – or else maybe you believe that Rumsfeld truly has other pressing engagements for mid-February.

In the meantime there will be no Secretary of Defense at Munich, and Teltschik certainly regrets this: “That’s going to lead to some disappointment in Europe, for there is a considerable need for discussion in view of Iraq crisis.” But there will be Dept. of Defense civilian #3 attending instead, namely Douglas Feith, well-known to be just as much a “neo-conservative” as the two civilians ahead of him in the Department’s ranks, namely Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz. The Bush administration certainly can’t be accused of bowing to European sentiment by sending someone with a background and convictions more to continental taste. Plainly, it merely can justifiably be accused of sending someone lacking enough decision-making authority to make this year’s American participation there anything more than a show-the-flag seat-warming exercise.


Naturally, there’s a wider lesson to be drawn out of all this. Bush is now re-elected; most European governments are deeply disappointed, but know they’re not allowed to express such sentiments publicly. Instead, the usual sentiments have been forthcoming about letting by-gones be by-gones, about how American and Europe need to cast aside their differences to work together, in the cause of “advancing freedom” or whatever your the current goal you have in mind is. Yet we’re likely to find out ultimately that that is no more possible than during the first Bush administration, because little has fundamentally changed to make such nice-sounding sentiments reality. Most Europeans (especially European constituents, as opposed to their governments) are still seriously disturbed about not only the War in Iraq but also about the downright torture that that has apparently given rise to. (And not only committed by American forces, but now – as we’re seeing – also by the British, and yes, even by the Danes, it is said; I’ll see whether I can work up something about that Danish case for you.) On the other side, we all can see from Bush’s famous recent remark in a Washington Post interview – that the “accountability moment” for what he has done in Iraq was the election, and since he won that, he also has won approval for what he has done in Iraq – that there has been no attitude change on the side of the American administration, either. Bush and his administration all the way on down still think they were and are right in Iraq, and it is transparent that this trip he will make to Europe in February is a concession to the Europeans only insofar as he is committing American government resources, and his own presidential time, to go visit the Europeans rather than force them to troop on over the Atlantic and come visit him. Yes, he’s glad to go over and pay a visit, so that he can magnanimously make available to them the opportunity to tell him that he was right all along.

It’s not going to happen that way. Indeed, the American people should prepare themselves now for the sight of their president catalyzing mass demonstrations of Europeans in the streets graphically making known their displeasure over the American president and his policies wherever he goes in late February. Sorry, maybe it’s no longer true in the land of the free and home of the brave, but over in Europe everywhere is truly a “free speech zone.” By now it’s well-known that the President always takes care to ensure that he is packed in a sound-proof bubble wherever he goes, but at least that visit might be a chance to let the American public realize that, notwithstanding all the pious talk of reconciliation after Bush’s re-election, nothing fundamentally has changed in American-European relations.

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