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Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld at NATO Headquarters

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld
June 12, 2003

RUMSFELD:  Good afternoon. We have had some very good meetings today. I thanked our Allies for their strong support in the Global War on Terrorism, and especially in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

We enthusiastically welcomed the seven invitees who joined in the meetings of the Defense Planning Committee and the North Atlantic Council. Since the end of the Cold War, we have now invited a total of ten new Allies, many of them of course were former Warsaw Pact adversaries. I think it says a good deal about how much Europe has changed in the past decade. Certainly, it has changed a great deal since I was here as U.S. Ambassador to NATO three decades ago. Who could have imagined back then that Poland would not only be a NATO Ally, but would be receiving force generation support from NATO to lead an element in Iraq?

The presence of these new seven members, I think, will change NATO for the better. I mentioned to the incoming Defense Ministers that they have certainly have not been invited – their countries have not been invited to NATO as junior partners. They have been invited to full membership and to exercise leadership.

Since the Prague Summit, NATO has made some truly historic decisions, if you think about it. NATO decided to undertake operations under Article Four to defend Turkey against the threat posed by Iraq’s weapons. NATO decided to support German and Dutch forces leading ISAF in Afghanistan - ISAF III - and to consider taking a NATO lead for ISAF IV. And last month NATO decided to support Poland as it leads one of the three division headquarters in Iraq for stability operations. These decisions, I think, very clearly underscore NATO’s recognition that in the 21st century security environment we have to be able to conduct multiple operations at a wide variety of locations across the globe.

In the Defense Planning Committee today, Admiral Ed Giambastiani gave a briefing on some initial results from the lessons-learned activity from Operation Iraqi Freedom. We had probably the most comprehensive effort to achieve lessons learned. It involved something in excess of a hundred people who began immediately with the beginning of the conflict. These lessons underscore the importance of the two initiatives, which NATO approved at this meeting. One is the new Command Structure. Really, it’s a historic change. And the second being the NATO Response Force. These are each enormously important activities. And not easy to achieve, I would say.

If one thinks back to the prior meeting, and then the one before that, there was a great deal of skepticism expressed by a lot of people as to what would happen to the NATO Response Force. Would it, in fact, get the support of countries? And what would happen to the effort to transform our command structure in a way that would fit the 21st century? And yet the Command Structure restructuring has now been agreed to. It is significant. And the progress in the NATO Response Force, I think, is impressive. It suggests something about NATO’s health, I would submit.

Finally, I discussed the U.S. concern about the lawsuit that’s recently been filed in a Belgian court against General Tom Franks and against Colonel Brian McCoy alleging that they were responsible for war crimes in Iraq, as well as suits that have been filed here in Belgium against former President Bush – George Herbert Walker Bush as opposed to George W. Bush – General Norman Schwarzkopf, Vice President Cheney and Secretary Powell.

The suits are absurd. Indeed, I would submit that there is no general in history who has gone to greater lengths than General Franks and his superb team to avoid civilian casualties. I am told that the suit against General Franks was effectively invited by a Belgian law that claims to gives Belgian courts powers to try the citizens of any nation for war crimes. The United States rejects the presumed authority of Belgian courts to try General Franks, Colonel McCoy, Vice President Cheney, Secretary Powell and General Schwarzkopf, as well as former President Bush.

I will leave it to the lawyers to debate the legalities. I am not a lawyer. But the point is this. By passing this law, Belgium has turned its legal system into a platform for divisive, politicized lawsuits against her NATO Allies. Now, it’s obviously not for outsiders, non-Belgians, to tell the Belgian government what laws it should pass. And what it should not pass. With respect to Belgium’s sovereignty, we respect it. Even though Belgium appears not to respect the sovereignty of other countries.

But Belgium needs to realize that there are consequences to its actions. This law calls into serious question whether NATO can continue to hold meetings in Belgium and whether senior U.S. officials, military and civilian, will be able to continue to visit international organizations in Belgium. I would submit that that could be the case for other NATO Allies, as well.

If the civilian and military leaders of member states can not come to Belgium without fear of harassment by Belgian courts entertaining spurious charges by politicized prosecutors, then it calls into question Belgium’s attitude about its responsibilities as a host nation for NATO and Allied forces. For our part, we will have to consider whether we can allow senior uniformed and civilian officials to come to Baghdad . . . to Belgium, I mean. (laughter) Because of the charges flowing out of the activities in Baghdad, which of course would involve other coalition nations as well. Certainly 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.

And with that, I’ll be happy to respond to questions.

Q:  The House of Representatives asked you to make a study about what you just talked about, the opportunity to stay in Belgium for the headquarters of NATO. Is that the answer, or the beginning of that process you are talking about?

RUMSFELD:  No. I was not even aware of that until I just walked into the room that the House had passed that request. What I’ve said is simply the Administration position.

Q:  So is that a clear threat to the government of Belgium or the Belgian Parliament that if they don’t change the law NATO could leave Belgium.

RUMSFELD:  No. There is no threat at all. I just have stated a fact. That it would be obviously not easy for U.S. officials, or potentially coalition officials, civilian or military, to come to Belgium for meetings. And therefore, my position and our position is that it does not make much sense to build a new headquarters if you couldn’t come here for meetings.

But there is no threat. Belgium can do – will do – whatever it wishes to do.

Q:  There’s been rather intense fighting in Iraq over the last several days as the U.S. has been trying to root out the remnants of Saddam Hussein’s regime. In fact, a helicopter was shot down today. My question is, was the U.S. premature in announcing an end to major combat operations before you accounted for Saddam Hussein and finished the job of eliminating his regime? And what would you say to the U.S. troops in Iraq – particularly the members of the 3rd Infantry Division – who we’re discovering are quite disappointed to not be coming back the United States, but instead to be assigned new, dangerous combat duties in Iraq?

RUMSFELD:  Well, the answer to the first portion of your question is no. It was perfectly appropriate to state the truth. And the truth was that major combat operations had been completed, and at the same time we said that there were still remnants of the Saddam Hussein regime that would need to be dealt with. The announcement that was made was completely accurate and certainly not premature at all.

What happened was most of the battles took place in the south. And there was very little north of Baghdad. The forces there collapsed and disappeared into the countryside. Obviously, there are still Fedayeen Saddam forces, and Ba’ath Party elements and, I suspect, other elements of the Special Republican Guard conceivably that are operating in those areas in small groups. The task of the coalition forces is to root out the remnants of these enforcers from the Saddam Hussein regime, and that’s what they’re doing.

The comment you made about the 3rd Infantry Division is interesting. It’s beyond me how you could conceivably know what the center of gravity of the people in that entire outfit think. But, they have done a superb job. Some of them have been there since late last year. A large number of the others have been there since early this year, which is less than six months. We have had a force-flow program so that the troops that have been there the longest will be rotated out in an orderly way, as we always do. I was over there recently and my impression is that the morale is quite high on the part of the 3rd Infantry Division soldiers and it ought to be. They’ve done an absolutely superb job.

Q:  Secretary Rumsfeld, you have been a leader of the war against Saddam Hussein which was launched because of his weapons of mass destruction. At this moment, these weapons have not been found and you are publicly guessing where they are. Don’t you feel that you are losing some credibility as a leader?

RUMSFELD:  We have felt all along, when the U.N. inspectors were in there – that trying to find the weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein’s program would be very difficult for the inspectors. The way they could be found, while the inspectors were there, was by taking individuals out of the country, protecting them, protecting their families, providing them with a way they could have a life and not have to fear for their lives. And that it would be only through the information from people who were directly involved in the programs that we would find the weapons. We never believed people would just go out and be able to find a site, trip over it, discover it and say, "Eureka, we found it."

The same thing is true on the ground. It’s a country the size of California. We have not found Saddam Hussein either and I don’t think anyone is wondering if he was really there. He was.

What we are doing currently is going about the business in an orderly way, inspecting suspect sites, interrogating people that we’ve been able to gain custody of and, as the interrogation project continues, my guess is that what will take place is over a period of some time we’ll find individuals. Indeed, I can say already we are finding individuals who have been involved in programs. And we’ll find documentation and we’ll find old computers and things that will enable us to go find the remnants of their programs.

Q:  You said that NATO Headquarters can not function anymore, because Belgian law, universal jurisdiction . . .

RUMSFELD:  Oh, I didn’t say that. I speak fairly precisely, I hope, most of the time. I won’t repeat what I said, but NATO headquarters is functioning. It will just be difficult if people are not able to come to meetings here.

Q:  Does that mean that the headquarters has to move out of Brussels?

RUMSFELD:  All I’m saying is we have a situation where former President Bush, Secretary Powell, Vice President Cheney, General Schwarzkopf, General Tom Franks and Colonel McCoy have all been charged already with war crimes in this jurisdiction. And that creates a problem. It creates a problem that’s obvious. It doesn’t take a genius to understand that that is a problem. If anyone that comes here who is a senior coalition military or civilian official is going to be subjected to the harassment of spurious lawsuits and be forced to spend large sums of money attempting to defend themselves against this type of thing, then people are not going to want to come here.

And that’s really a judgment for . . . Belgium is a sovereign nation. They can decide what they want to do. It’s perfectly possible to meet elsewhere. But what will happen, I just don’t know. All I’m doing is stating the problem. And what the solution will be, I think, is really more up to Belgium and up to NATO than up to the United States.

Q:  Mr. Secretary, can you comment on the Spanish decision to send its troops to the Polish sector of Iraq? And do you see any further role of NATO in Iraqi stabilization?

RUMSFELD:  I think that’s possible and certainly a large number of NATO countries are already assisting and a number of others have volunteered to offer both, in some cases troops and in other cases various types of reconstruction assistance. But that’s a decision for NATO to take.

With respect to the Spanish decision, we are very pleased that Spain has decided to send a significant number of troops and to participate in the sector that Poland is heading up. We think that’s a good thing for both countries and for that sector.

I think there are something like I think it’s – correct me if I’m wrong – the last time I looked there are about 6 or 8 countries that have committed troops and there are something like 40 or 41 countries that are currently discussing various levels of troop assistance in Iraq. And the Central Command is working with them to try to patch together the elements from the plus or minus 3 dozen countries into organizations that will be successful and be able to do their work effectively. We already have, obviously, a number of coalition forces in the country. There’s something like twelve or thirteen thousand there at the present time. And that number will grow substantially as we go through the coming two or three months, one would think. President Bush has said very clearly, that we intend to have as many U.S. troops there as is necessary to assure the kind of security that will enable the Iraqi people to have an environment that enables them to begin to rebuild their country and to get themselves on a path towards, first, one would think, an interim authority of some type and then a constitutional convention and an Iraqi constitution that fits Iraq. And then an Iraqi government.

It takes some time, obviously. They don’t have any recent experience with representative government and civil society. They’ve been living under a vicious dictatorship. As a sign of how vicious it is, we keep finding additional mass graves with thousands of remains of human beings that were killed and piled in these mass graves. It is sight to behold.

I’ll make this the last question.

Q:  Lord Robertson has been telling us today that NATO has recovered remarkably since the crisis over Iraq. Yet, here you are today telling us that the U.S. may not even be able to send officials to NATO Headquarters because of a lawsuit against General Tommy Franks. Doesn’t that prove precisely that the crisis over Iraq is alive and well and that NATO is still caught slap-bang in the middle of it?

RUMSFELD:  Oh, I’m sure there are those that would be delighted if NATO were "slap-bang" in a crisis, but Lord Robertson’s correct. We’re not in a crisis. I’ve been around NATO for decades and I’ve never seen a time when somebody didn’t say, "NATO’s history. NATO’s about done. NATO is in a crisis. Oh, my, the sky is falling."

This organization is healthy. We’ve had superb meetings. It’s moving forward to transform itself to fit the 21st century. The NATO response force is a significant activity. The fact that these - I guess it was just 18 countries that worked through the command structure changes - that they could do that and have significant reductions in the numbers of headquarters and in the numbers of CAOC’s is not nothing. I’m trying to do it in the United States and it’s not easy. It’s hard work. It’s hard work with one country. But to do it with 18 countries is a significant accomplishment.

The answer to your question is flat no. You are wrong. There is not a major crisis. We will get through this. Not to worry. 

Q:  Superb meetings, but possibly somewhere else?

RUMSFELD:  I didn’t say that. Thank you.