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U.S.: However Impolitic, Rumsfeld's Remarks May Reflect NATO Readjustment

  • Jeremy Bransten

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld stoked divisions in NATO anew yesterday. He said Washington may have to stop funding the construction of new NATO headquarters in Brussels and stop sending U.S. officials and soldiers to Belgium unless the country changes its controversial war crimes legislation. Belgium today replied that there is no need to alter the law since it has already been adequately amended. At a time when the alliance has been trying to repair divisions caused by the Iraq war, do Rumsfeld's words signal that effort is failing?

Prague, 13 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- With characteristic bluntness, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has blasted Belgium for a controversial law that allows the country to prosecute war crimes suspects, regardless of their residence or citizenship. And he warned that Belgium could pay a heavy price unless it abolishes the measure.

Rumsfeld, speaking yesterday in Brussels, said lawsuits based on Belgium's universal competence law are "absurd." The law gives Belgian courts the authority to prosecute individuals accused of war crimes, regardless of the crimes' connection to Belgium or the accused's presence on Belgian soil.

He added that the existence of the law calls into question Belgium's ability to host NATO headquarters.

The U.S. defense secretary went one step further, announcing that Washington is suspending funding for the construction of a new NATO building in Brussels.

"Until this matter is resolved, we will have to oppose any further spending for construction for a new NATO headquarters here in Brussels until we know with certainty that Belgium intends to be a hospitable place for NATO to conduct its business, as it has been over so many years," Rumsfeld said.

The disputed law has already led to lawsuits against former U.S. President George Bush Sr., Vice President Dick Cheney, and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, dating from the 1991 Gulf War, and more recently against General Tommy Franks, the U.S. commander in Iraq this year.

Confusion has now emerged in Belgium as to how the country will respond.

Earlier today, Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel noted that a recent amendment to the law limits its powers, allowing for cases to be sent to the defendants' country of origin, if that nation is deemed to have a fair and democratic legal system. That is what Belgium did in the case against Franks last month, although the other suits are still pending.

Michel said there is no reason to change the law any further or to abolish it.

But Andre Flahaut, Belgium's defense minister, said a further change in the law might be subject to negotiation.

One thing appears certain. Rumsfeld's comments will open further divisions at a time when NATO is trying to mend internal relations disrupted by the Iraq war. Although he is known for his frequent undiplomatic remarks, there is evidence that the U.S. defense secretary was not speaking off-the-cuff.

Last month, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a little-noticed amendment that asks the U.S. Defense Department to research the potential costs and logistics of moving NATO's military headquarters out of Belgium.

With the administration of President George W. Bush giving increased emphasis to NATO's newer members, such as Poland, some argue that the alliance should move its center eastward to reflect new realities. Many others ask whether NATO could, in fact, survive such a move.

Military analyst Timothy Garden of Britain's Royal Institute for International Affairs points out that since NATO works by consensus, reaching unanimous agreement on moving the alliance's headquarters out of Belgium would be nearly impossible. Garden believes that if the United States seriously pursues this goal, it could endanger the alliance's very viability.

"There are lots of strains in NATO and the threat either to push the headquarters presumably to the East -- which would be re-centering, if you like, the American perception of the 'new Europe' or interfering, as it would be seen, in the internal affairs of a NATO member, that is Belgium, trying to get it to change its laws to suit the United States -- either of those looks as though they would be intensely damaging to what already is a very bruised organization," Garden says.

Despite the increasingly high-profile role of countries like Poland in NATO, Garden says that if you look at the facts, Rumsfeld's so-called "new Europe" is big on enthusiasm but low on the military capabilities and financial resources that it can contribute to the alliance.

"The new European members that have come into NATO are, although very willing to give vocal support to U.S. policy, very limited [in their capabilities]. They may have some niche capabilities. If we take the example of the Polish proposal for looking after a sector of Iraq, the Poles during the Iraq conflict provided 200 support troops in a conflict which needed 200,000. And now that they're going into the post-conflict period, they're saying that they would welcome taking the headquarters role for this small sector, but they can only provide about 2,000 troops. And yet, the numbers that are needed are much greater than that," Garden says.

Aside from Britain, he says France and Germany continue to form essential military pillars for NATO and that will not change for quite some time.

"If you look now in Afghanistan, the biggest contribution is from Germany, and France has expeditionary capabilities. So, freezing them out is in nobody's interest because they have real capabilities that are useful to NATO, to the U.S. and to international stability, however it is flagged," he says.

Jeffrey Gedmin, director of the Aspen Institute in Berlin, an independent think tank devoted to international affairs and trans-Atlantic relations. He agrees that the likelihood of NATO moving its headquarters out of Brussels in the near future is very slim. But he says Rumsfeld's statement -- however undiplomatic -- reflects the fact that a certain readjustment is taking place both within Europe and between certain countries of Europe and the United States and that this will have a long-term impact on NATO.

"This is an alliance which is in flux. The Cold War, we could say, is really, really, really over now, and I think we're at the beginning of asking the hard questions in a practical sort of way. To answer your question: I don't think NATO is moving anytime soon. But I think issues are going to be raised, not only about cost but strategic relevance, proximity to regions where we're going to be operating in the next 10, 20, 30 years, the interests of the West Europeans and the interests of the Central and East Europeans," Gedmin says.

Gedmin notes that the impetus for redefining the trans-Atlantic relationship comes as much from the United States as it does from countries like Germany and France, which are seeking to create pan-European structures that will give the continent a new, more robust political identity and likely change long-term ties with Washington.

"We're both in the process of renegotiating this relationship. It doesn't mean full-blown strategic divorce, but it's not the same kind of tightly integrated unit that we used to have," he says. "It's different now. And I think people are poking around and tapping around, sometimes even in the dark, trying to find out what is still relevant and in what ways. If we look at a map of Europe, we see that Western Europe is fixed, Central and Eastern Europe is being fixed and the likeliest hot spots and conflicts of the next 10 and 20 and 30 years will not be where I'm sitting here today in Berlin. And maybe it does make sense to contemplate moving some of our structures, institutions, and forces elsewhere, where they are closer to those regions."

If that happens, then perhaps Rumsfeld's words will be remembered as prescient -- not just impolitic.