WASHINGTON Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's cranky frankness made him a star in a bland administration, but some now are blaming his periodic slaps at Europe for adding to the administration's difficulties in recruiting a coalition to confront Iraq.
To the surprise of foreign-policy specialists and even some White House officials, Rumsfeld has become a leading administration voice on diplomatic matters and is widely viewed abroad as the official who most closely reflects what President Bush really thinks.
So when Rumsfeld dismissed France and Germany as "old Europe" last month, and provocatively included Germany with Libya and Cuba as "three or four countries that have said they won't do anything" to assist in reconstructing a postwar Iraq, his comments offered a measure of vindication for Europeans who contend that Bush has no interest in working with officials who do not instantly agree with him.
German Defense Minister Peter Struck told Parliament that he found Rumsfeld's linking of Germany to Libya and Cuba "unacceptable and un-American."
When an interviewer for German television told Rumsfeld last week that many Germans were outraged by the gibe, Rumsfeld replied, "All I was doing was accurately representing what they have said publicly. I can't imagine why someone would be so sensitive to be concerned about it."
Brushing off another critic, Rumsfeld said the French "are frequently recalcitrant about a lot of things."
Although Secretary of State Colin Powell speaks for the United States at such forums as Friday's meeting of the U.N. Security Council, Rumsfeld's style often has eclipsed Powell on issues of global security, according to Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute, a public-policy think tank.
"Powell's careful locutions can't compete with the blunt eloquence of Rumsfeld," Thompson said.
Even at the United Nations, Rumsfeld's remarks echoed Friday, as speakers from France, China, Britain and Bulgaria referred with various degrees of tart humor as coming from "old" countries. Powell responded by saying he came from a "relatively new country" but the "oldest democracy" at the table.
Still, Rumsfeld's critics say he has made it more difficult for France, Germany and other countries to make behind-the-scenes compromises with the United States.
"At a moment of grand diplomacy, you try to figure out a subtle way to back the other party into your corner," said James Rubin, an assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration.
"When Don Rumsfeld speaks, much of Europe and the rest of the world disagree with him before he even opens his mouth."
Critics include not only Rumsfeld's foes but also Europeans who agree with the Bush policy on Iraq.
"Mr. Rumsfeld is the shock jock of diplomacy, the Howard Stern of American policy," the Financial Times of London said. "It is a disgraceful indictment of the Bush administration that this man has become the most identifiable spokesman for U.S. foreign policy."
Plenty of differences would separate Bush and Western Europe in any case, but Ezra Suleiman, director of the Committee for European Studies at Princeton University, said Rumsfeld has "rubbed salt in the wound" and helped squander the sympathy for the United States that spread through Europe after the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center.
Foreign-policy scholars said much of the damage would be felt in the aftermath of a war with Iraq, when the United States would be trying to enlist other countries to help fund the occupation of Iraq, or if allies were to reduce the pressure on their law-enforcement and intelligence bureaucracies to cooperate with their American counterparts.
"The United States might be better off at this point if Rumsfeld makes major amends or resigns, the damage is so severe and so counterproductive to our interests," said Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
"We don't want to bear all the consequences of the Muslim backlash unilaterally."
Rumsfeld's freewheeling comments sometimes have caused headaches for others in the administration. He cast aside the administration's formulations about Middle East policy when he referred in August to "the so-called occupied territories" adjoining Israel.
And veterans groups reacted furiously last month when Rumsfeld said Vietnam War draftees provided "no value, no advantage, really, to the United States armed services over any sustained period of time." He subsequently issued a written apology but insisted his remarks had been taken out of context and distorted by some in the media.
White House officials admit they occasionally have cringed at Rumsfeld's timing and choice of words. "Sometimes the stalking horse gets a little far out in front of the parade," one official said.
But the officials said those occasions have been rare and noted that, to the dismay of some in the State Department, Bush has given his imprimatur to Rumsfeld's style by allowing him to continue to speak freely. Some officials said Rumsfeld deliberately had assumed a "bad-cop" role, willing and able to make unpleasant but useful pronouncements.
"It might make those people who would rather not deal with serious issues uncomfortable," a senior defense official said. "But somebody has got to be the adult."
Information from the Chicago Tribune is included in this report.
Copyright 2003 Washington Post