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Western Press Review: Taking The Measure Of Donald Rumsfeld

Prague, 12 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Newspapers today ponder the choice of Donald Rumsfeld to lead the U.S. Defense Department. Rumsfeld appeared yesterday in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee as part of his confirmation process. He is expected to win support of a majority of Senators and replace outgoing Defense Secretary William Cohen. Papers also consider the controversy around depleted uranium munitions, former Bosnian Serb President Biljana Plavsic's indictment for war crimes and U.S. President Bill Clinton's eight-year term in office that ends a week from tomorrow.


The U.S. edition of the Wall Street Journal looks approvingly at what it anticipates will be Donald Rumsfeld's priorities in office, especially a professed desire to improve U.S. fighting capabilities in outer space and support for the controversial national missile defense system, known as NMD.

The paper cites a recent report by a commission led by Rumsfeld saying that weapons in space are inevitable and that the U.S. ought to review existing arms-control obligations that block deployment of a space-based deterrent. The report recommends better satellite defenses, a fast-track program to develop a space-launch capability to compete with France and China, and better incentives for U.S. students to study technology and engineering.

The Wall Street Journal writes: "In this case, the bottom line is maintaining U.S. superiority in space. The commission's main message is that the U.S. has been muddling along, taking its pre-eminence for granted and leaving itself vulnerable to 'a space Pearl Harbor,' while other nations have been developing space programs apace."

The Wall Street Journal also notes that in his confirmation hearing yesterday, Rumsfeld reiterated his commitment to a national missile defense system that would be used to oppose missile launches from rogue states such as Iran or North Korea.

But, the paper opines, both an NMD system and control of space is "impossible so long as the U.S. remains a party to the ABM Treaty." In our view, the Wall Street Journal concludes, "the best first step toward attaining both goals would be for President-elect Bush to use his Inaugural Address (20 January) to announce the U.S. withdrawal from that outdated treaty."


Those same priorities, however, alarm Retired Colonel Daniel Smith, a member of an independent research organization, the Center for Defense Information, based in Washington. Writing in today's Moscow Times, Smith says, based on Rumsfeld's previous record on defense and his positions on key issues, there is "good reason" for concern by those troubled by what Smith calls the Pentagon's "extravagant programs."

Smith says that in view of Rumsfeld's tenure as defense secretary in the 1970s, during which Rumsfeld supported the build-up of U.S. conventional and strategic forces, including the MX intercontinental ballistic missile and the B-1 bomber.

Smith says that since 1998 Rumsfeld has been a strong advocate of NMD, "despite the fact that neither North Korea nor Iran today appear any closer to deploying missiles that could threaten the United States."

Smith also challenges Rumsfeld's position on improving space-fighting capabilities. Smith says it is "certainly reasonable for the [U.S.] to take steps to safeguard" its satellite systems, but Smith points out that past programs to develop anti-satellite systems have been "ineffective."

Smith concludes: "The history of anti-satellite systems is nearly as troubled, both from a technological and diplomatic standpoint, as the national missile defense system. Yet, by choosing Rumsfeld to be the next defense secretary, it appears the president-elect has hit upon the one man whose commitment to both of these highly questionable systems is nearly as unswerving as his own."


Bob Woodward, writing in today's Washington Post, focuses less on Rumsfeld's likely policy choices and more on the relationship Rumsfeld will have with his future commander-in-chief, George W. Bush.

In his commentary, entitled "Bush's Wild Card," Woodward writes: "Rumsfeld...was one of the brightest Republican stars in the 1960s and '70s. ...Many associates, including Rumsfeld himself at times, thought that the former...Princeton [university] wrestler was headed for the presidency."

But Woodward says those ambitions "never fully flowered" in part because of the rise of the president-elect's father, George Bush senior, who was president from 1989 to 1993.

In the 1970s, Woodward says a "subtle rivalry emerged between Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and [then] CIA Director [George] Bush [Sr]." The Washington Post writer says Rumsfeld found Bush to be a "lightweight who was interested in friendships, public relations and public opinion polls more than substantive policy."

In his commentary, Woodward contrasts this view of Bush Sr. with that of Rumsfeld as tough, opinionated and willing to "draw fire" for ideas he feels passionately about. Woodward notes that these traits, among others, "would not be a bad list for [Bush's] son."

Woodward concludes: "Rumsfeld once thought he was on track to run for or even become president. Instead, 25 years after his Pentagon service, he is slated to return in the administration of his rival's son. It will surely be one of the most interesting relationships to watch."


The German newspaper, Die Welt, considers yesterday's "not guilty" plea by former Bosnian Serb President Biljana Plavsic in the UN war crimes tribunal at The Hague. The paper says in making the plea -- concerning nine counts of alleged war crimes in Bosnia in the early 1990s -- Plavsic restricted herself to just a couple of words. Die Welt says, however, that others -- notably U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright -- showed a regrettable lack of restraint.

Die Welt is critical of Albright's comment that Plavsic showed "courage" in voluntarily handing herself over to the tribunal. The paper says, "one should be more careful in praising Plavsic." Die Welt continues, "it shouldn't be forgotten for a moment what she did: that she belonged to the leadership circle of former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and that she was also a driving force behind ethnic cleansing..."

Die Welt speculates that it must have been what it calls the "courage of doubt" that drove Plavsic to the tribunal. The paper says that Plavsic could make herself useful by testifying against others at the tribunal, but it would be what Die Welt calls "cheap" to grant her a reduced sentence for this. Above all, the paper says, justice must be allowed to speak.


The UK's Economist takes up the issue of the use of weapons incorporating depleted uranium -- after NATO agreed this week to study the effect of such weapons on alliance soldiers deployed in the Balkans. Several soldiers serving with NATO peacekeeping units have died of cancer-related illnesses, and some NATO-member governments and international organizations have said that "DU" weapons may be the cause.

In a commentary entitled "Depleted NATO," the paper says "the row about depleted uranium is one that NATO could have done without. It has only itself to blame."

"In truth," The Economist says, "depleted uranium is not highly radioactive, but it is certainly toxic, especially when munitions explode causing dust or smoke which may be ingested." The paper says that even "NATO's Kosovo commanders acknowledge the danger by telling troops not to approach places contaminated by depleted uranium without good reason, and to wear heavy protection if they do."

Given the acknowledged dangers, The Economist says that "a full inquiry would help to clear the air." The Economist continues: "NATO may have little to fear from greater openness about the danger posed by depleted uranium. ..And it may be that depleted uranium can, after all, be shown to be benign."


The Wall Street Journal, by contrast, sees little need for more openness. In an editorial called "American Dracula," apparently mocking European fears of DU weapons as exaggerated, it says: "depleted uranium has never been shown to cause detectable increases in the incidence of cancer of any sort at exposure levels likely to have been seen in the Balkans."

The Journal begins by pointing out that exposure to depleted uranium is not limited to those who served in the Balkans or the Gulf War. "In fact," the paper says, "there is a good chance that most people reading this editorial have come into contact with it, and never knew it. That's because depleted uranium is frequently used in the so-called 'lead aprons' that doctors and dentists employ to shield patients' bodies during x-rays -- to protect them from radiation."

The paper cites a study of 15 U.S. veterans of the Gulf War, which it calls "one of the best studies available of the effect of DU on the human organism." The 15 men had fragments of DU lodged in their bodies as a result of friendly fire during the war.

The Wall Street Journal says "routine monitoring of these subjects since 1993 has shown elevated levels of radioactive isotopes in their urine. But even nine years after the fact, these soldiers suffer no health problems that can be related to the presence of low-grade radiation."

So, does exposure to DU weapons cause disease? No, says the Journal. "End of story."


The Economist takes a first look at U.S. President Bill Clinton's eight years in office, which officially ends a week from tomorrow. In an article cheekily entitled "How Was It For You?", the magazine says in many ways, Clinton's presidency was both "better, and worse" than The Economist foresaw eight years ago.

The Economist praises Clinton's economic policy: "Begin with the economy, where Mr Clinton's two terms have spanned America's longest peace-time boom. Happy coincidence, you could say, all thanks to Alan Greenspan's skilled work at the Federal Reserve, and to Silicon Valley. That is mostly right, but Mr Clinton played a part with budgets that became increasingly responsible."

The Economist also praises Clinton for his instincts on free trade and his support for the "Balkans peace process and NATO enlargement."

Where Clinton failed, The Economist says, is being a "poor twister of arms and an erratic salesman of his policies." As a result, the paper says, he has a "thin [record of] legislative achievement to show for his efforts."

The paper also cites what it calls Clinton's "old problem of indiscipline," which led him to "waste large amounts of time, energy and authority" battling scandals constantly laid at his door.

The Economist reminds us it once called on Clinton to resign after the Monica Lewinsky sex and perjury scandal. "As a matter of principle," the paper says, "he should have done." But, The Economist says, "we have to admit that Mr Clinton has preserved much more moral authority and effectiveness in office than ever seemed possible. By an irony, he has looked more and more presidential the closer he has come to the focus has shifted to another inexperienced but less clever southern governor [President-elect George W. Bush]."

In closing, The Economist writes: "There is a huge sense of talent wasted. With more discipline and less self-indulgence, how good eight years of Bill Clinton could have been."

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    Mark Baker

    Mark Baker is a freelance journalist and travel writer based in Prague. He has written guidebooks and articles for Lonely Planet, Frommer’s, and Fodor’s, and his articles have also appeared in National Geographic Traveler and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.