MUNICH, Germany - Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld offered yesterday an impassioned defense of the American-led war against Iraq to some of Europe's fiercest critics of the conflict.
Rumsfeld placed the blame for the war squarely on Saddam Hussein for his "deception and defiance," and refusal to abandon his illegal weapons program, as Libya did recently.
"It was his choice," Rumsfeld said in a speech here to an audience of 250 government ministers, lawmakers and national security experts from 30 countries, most of them in Europe. "If the Iraqi regime had taken the same steps Libya is now taking, there would have been no war."
Asked in a question-and-answer session afterward about apparent American intelligence failures in Iraq, Rumsfeld acknowledged it was a question of critical importance that would be examined by the commission appointed Friday by President Bush, but he emphasized that the panel would look at intelligence successes as well as shortcomings.
Rumsfeld's remarks drew several pointed questions from the audience challenging how the administration could defend its doctrine of pre-emptive strikes against perceived threats when the precise intelligence needed for such a strategy apparently failed in the case of Iraq.
"If you're going to live in this world, and it is a dangerous world, you do have to have elegant intelligence," Rumsfeld acknowledged.
But he repeatedly defended the get-them-before-they-get-us doctrine in an age when terrorists are threatening to acquire and use biological, chemical and nuclear weapons as "something that has to be weighed and considered by all of us," given the possible catastrophic consequences.
Looking back one year
A year ago at this same international security conference, Rumsfeld sparred with European officials, notably Joschka Fischer, the German foreign minister, over whether NATO member countries should gird for war with Iraq or allow international weapons inspectors to continue their search. Thousands of antiwar demonstrators gathered then in the streets of Munich.
This year, with the Bush administration needing European troops to help stabilize and rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan, Washington has sought to smooth over the trans-Atlantic rift, including a major speech in Switzerland last month by Vice President Dick Cheney.
Conference participants said last week that they sensed tensions had eased, replaced by a desire to move beyond the dispute and to combat common security problems, such as terrorism and the spread of illicit arms. This year, relatively few protesters turned out, though the conference was held under tight security with 4,000 police officers mobilized for the event.
In this climate, many officials here expected a tempered, if not conciliatory, speech yesterday from the American defense secretary, who is regarded by many Germans and French, in particular, as a villain for his dismissive remarks about an "old Europe." Instead, Rumsfeld appeared eager to put a potential adversary on the defensive as he laid out the administration's rationale for the war in the absence of illegal Iraqi weapons.
"Think about what was going on in Iraq a year ago with people being tortured, rape rooms, mass graves, gross corruption, a country that has used chemical weapons against its own people," Rumsfeld said in response to a question, his voice rising, his hands chopping the air for emphasis.
He then turned the question back on the audience. "There were prominent people from representative countries in this room that opined that they really didn't think it made a hell of a lot of difference who won," Rumsfeld said, nearly shouting. "Shocking. Absolutely shocking."
Asked whether America's stature in the world had been diminished since the war, he acknowledged the Iraq war had taken its toll, but contended that it was more because of biased reporting by Arab media such as al-Jazeera than anything the United States had done. "I know in my heart and my brain that America ain't what's wrong in the world," he said.
Some European participants said they were stunned by what they called Rumsfeld's arrogance, especially in light of the apparent intelligence failures in Iraq. "His view is, `We're right, they're wrong, and we'll continue to be right,'" said Christoph Bertram, director of the German Institute for International Politics and Security in Berlin. "It was a performance of `We know better.'"
Winning the peace
Other participants said the speech yesterday illustrated a problem of Europeans and Americans talking past each other on critical security issues.
Speaking to the conference before Rumsfeld's address, Fischer, the German foreign minister, said of the Iraq war that "events have proven the position we took at the time to be right." But he then repeatedly called for both sides to set aside their views on the war and work closely to ensure that Iraq does not fall victim to former members of Hussein's government and foreign terrorists operating in Iraq.
"We have to win the peace together," said Fischer, adding that only U.N. involvement could bring legitimacy to the process of restoring Iraqi sovereignty. "We must develop a common strategy with which to prevail over the jihadists."
Fischer proposed that the United States and Europe pool their resources to save the Middle East from what he called a crisis of modernization that was fostering terrorism and instability in the region.
He proposed a wide-ranging Middle East initiative to enhance security, bolster local economies and strengthen democratic institutions in Middle Eastern nations, such as the rule of law and political freedoms. He urged that NATO members pursue the initiative in advance of the alliance's summit meeting in Istanbul in late June.
In a brief interview after Rumsfeld's remarks, Fischer declined to comment on them except to say, "I think we have to look for the positive aspects."