- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 9, 2003

WASHINGTON, Feb. 9 (UPI) — Stories about internal policy disagreements among NATO members are nothing new. The debate over U.S. medium-range missile deployment in Europe was a major disagreement in the 1980s. More recently there were differences between Washington and Brussels over bombing targets in Serbia.

Today, there's a new seismic crack in NATO's surface, with supporters of a U.S.-led war against Iraq on one side, and its opponents on the other.

Perhaps because current differences have brought the alliance closer to the brink than ever before the rhetoric seems more aggressive, and the behavior more venomous. Some see it as the first falling dust of a crumbling wall that was the West's bastion against communism — but that prediction has been made before.

As usual France is ranged on one side of the dispute and the United States on the other. But it is Germany that's getting the brunt of Washington's selected skirmishers.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's dismissive reference to France and Germany as "Old Europe" was no slip of the tongue. It's become his battle cry.

He mentioned it again in his dinner speech at this weekend's Werkunde, the annual meeting of Western defense specialists in Munich, where this year the serious work threatened to be overshadowed by a shouting match between him and German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer.

Rumsfeld said he couldn't understand the fuss when he mentioned it the first time, because, being 76 years old himself, he meant it as a term of endearment. But few people present were amused. Or convinced.

Grouping Germany with Libya and Cuba as the three countries that would not help the U.S. war effort "in any respect," as Rumsfeld told Congress earlier in the week, was not seen in Europe as a term of endearment either. Two other anti-war countries, Mexico and Canada (another NATO ally) are likely to be equally unhelpful, but Rumsfeld didn't mention them.

To the annoyance of the Germans, Rumsfeld has taken to saying that French and German support don't matter much because with the addition of 10 former communist Eastern European and Balkan countries to NATO, the "center of gravity of Europe has shifted eastward." True, the center of Europe has shifted — but to Berlin, not to Vilnius.

His implication that the United States can attack Saddam Hussein secure in the knowledge that it has the declared backing of the Albanian army and the Bulgarian navy and so who needs France and Germany, trivializes the important issue of support for the U.S. war against Iraq — and offends two old allies.

A German newspaper, Rumsfeld told his Werkunde audience Saturday, revealed the fact that "my ancestors came from Northern Germany and that is an area known for plain, straight talk."

And as designated enfant terrible of the Bush administration, Rumsfeld is not trying to sway the minds in Berlin and Paris or Brussels. The Germans are not likely to switch anyway and the French are keeping their options open.

The Iraq crisis is the first since the most recent enlargement of NATO first to 19 members and then last November to 26. It will be a test case of how the organization reacts under major pressure. Rumsfeld is clearly determined to demonstrate from the outset for the benefit of the newcomers that Washington calls the shots.

Secondly, for better or worse the Bush administration has determined that this is Saddam's moment of truth. Support of America's major European allies is seen as an article of faith; by extrapolation, then, less than total support is seen in Washington as a form of betrayal.

It's also possible in the case of Germany, that the administration harbors some residual resentment that Socialist Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder chose to play the anti-American card to get himself re-elected last September. He portrayed himself as a leader who would not be a yes-man to the Bush administration — and would certainly not join a war against Iraq.

The reality is that most strategic experts reckon the United States can handle the war without the involvement of either France or Germany. Privately, Rumsfeld may well think that France's participation could turn out to be more trouble than it's worth if the French decide to be "difficult." But a united front is what NATO is all about. And German and French involvement will be important in the reconstruction phase of post-Saddam Iraq.

The Germans are not helping by being huffily defiant. Fischer's globally televised "I'm not convinced" outburst at the Werkunde was hardly a display of diplomacy evoking memories of Talleyrand.

U.S. diplomats in Munich also accused Paris and Berlin of working on an elaborate proposal to add muscle to the U.N. weapons inspections — lots of muscle in the form of blue-helmeted troops, and Mirage IV surveillance planes — without prior consultation with Washington.

Rumsfeld said he first learned of the so-called plan when it was leaked in the German magazine Der Spiegel. A senior U.S. official said Saturday, "The last thing you want to do is to lay on the U.S. government a major diplomatic proposal through the press. That's not the way to do things."

In reality the Americans were being somewhat disingenuous, because the plan had been put forward on Wednesday by French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin in his Security Council statement following Secretary of State Colin Powell's detailed account of how Saddam manufactured and concealed weapons of mass destruction.

Villepin mentioned increasing the number of inspectors to 300, appointing a U.N. resident weapons representative in Baghdad, adding many more branch offices, exchanging intelligence in real time, and he had offered the Mirages — all key elements of the Franco-German plan. Only the blue helmets were added in the Der Spiegel version.

In keeping the plan a secret the Germans were taking a leaf out of an earlier initiative — the open letter expressing support for the United States signed by Britain, Spain and six other NATO countries and carried in leading European and U.S. papers two weeks ago.

The letter project started as an editorial idea at the Wall Street Journal, but its later development unquestionably involved the Bush administration. Nobody — not Washington, nor the signatories — bothered to tell Paris or Berlin. They read it in the papers.

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