- The Washington Times - Monday, March 19, 2001

LONDON U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has warned that plans for a European defense force could "inject instability" into the NATO alliance, undermining claims by British Prime Minister Tony Blair that he has persuaded the United States to support the plan.

The proposed European force could "put at risk something that is very special," Mr. Rumsfeld said in an interview with the London Sunday Telegraph, the first detailed public statement on the subject by a senior U.S. official since Mr. Blair visited Camp David last month.

Mr. Blair said on his return that President Bush had agreed to support the European "army," but Mr. Rumsfeld made it clear that the new administration remains deeply concerned about the project.

Invited to confirm that he was "relaxed" about the European Union's proposals, Mr. Rumsfeld conspicuously declined to do so. He warned: "I personally will be watching carefully to see how things evolve, because we have so much at stake with that [NATO] alliance.

"We need to be vigilant to see that we don't do anything that could inject an instability into the alliance."

In a sign of his frustration that the issue refuses to die, Mr. Blair, also interviewed by the London Sunday Telegraph, accused Britain's opposition Conservative Party of pouring "poison" into the ears of the Americans.

However, Mr. Blair acknowledged that some EU countries involved in the defense initiative may intend "to destroy NATO" a reference that assumably applied to France.

"Well, if we don't get involved in European defense, it will happen without Britain," Mr. Blair said. "Then those people who really may have an agenda to destroy NATO will have control of it."

The re-emergence of the trans-Atlantic rift is a blow to Mr. Blair, who sought to alleviate Mr. Bush's concerns when they met at Camp David a month ago. At the time, Mr. Bush said: "He assured me that NATO is going to be the primary way to keep the peace in Europe."

Mr. Bush's advisers, however, have been alarmed by annexes to the Nice Treaty, signed last year, that state that the European force will be "under the political control and strategic direction of the EU" during operations.

Mr. Rumsfeld, interviewed in Washington by the former Conservative member of Parliament Winston Churchill grandson of the wartime leader was asked to confirm Mr. Blair's view that the Bush administration was "relaxed" about the force.

Instead of agreeing, he replied: "I think the correct way to say it is that the president has said what he has said about it, and he understands it. As in so many things in life, the devil is in the detail. And the details haven't been worked out.

"The way the planning mechanism is handled could make an enormous difference. But arranged in a way that didn't really look out over the long term … then it could put at risk something that's very special."

In his wide-ranging interview with political columnist Anne Applebaum, Mr. Blair said those in the Bush administration "have had poison poured in their ear by the present Conservative Party going over there and saying, this is all about ripping apart NATO, it's a French plot to destabilize …

"Every time I explain European defense to Americans, they understand it and end up supporting it.

"But this is all part of that ghastly [Conservative] traffic that goes across there saying, 'Oh, you know, the purpose of the New Labor government is to pull Britain apart from America.' "

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