The Washington Times

This is the second year I’ve attended the Munich Conference on Security Policy, a venerable gathering of defense ministers, generals, eminences and (my role) assorted hangers-on dedicated to two days’ of jawboning the state of trans-Atlantic relations and international security. The first time you do something, it’s all new; the second time, you’ve got a baseline against which to be surprised. This one was full of surprises.

The first was the appearance put in by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Mr. Rumsfeld had attended a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Nice, France, that broke up the day before, then popped down to Baghdad to visit the troops and to take a look at the training of Iraqi special forces. But Munich was not on his schedule when he left Washington, nor when he left Nice.

This was vexing to Europeans. The absence of the U.S. defense secretary from this conference is noteworthy. Earlier, Mr. Rumsfeld had made a cryptic remark about now not being a good time for him to go.

Nevertheless, especially following on the heels of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s trip to Europe the week before – a performance even the French found dazzling – and with President Bush due to arrive next week, Mr. Rumsfeld’s scheduled absence seemed conspicuously out of sync with the administration’s second-term agenda of fence-mending with our allies.

All is revealed in time. It seems that an American organization, the U.S. Center for Constitutional Rights, in conjunction with four Iraqis who claimed they had been abused at the Abu Ghraib prison, had filed a complaint last year with the German federal prosecutor demanding that Mr. Rumsfeld, among others, be investigated on war-crimes charges. Thus, the latest harassment of senior U.S. officials in furtherance of the legal doctrine of “universal jurisdiction,” according to which a court, in the name of evolving international legal norms, is empowered to take action against those believed to have committed a wrong, whether or not it took place within the national territory of the court or involved nationals of the country of the court. Germany passed such a law in 2002.

It’s not so much that anyone, including Mr. Rumsfeld, really expected that German prosecutors would try to pick him up for questioning. It’s just that national governments need to understand that when they act unseriously in the name of cherished left-wing pieties, there are consequences – in this case, no Rummy for your conference. Confronted with recent similar complaints against Americans under a 1993 law enacted by Belgium, where NATO has its headquarters, Mr. Rumsfeld had brusquely noted that if such a law remained on the books, NATO could meet elsewhere. The embarrassed Belgians abruptly repealed it.

Lo and behold, on Thursday, the eve of the Munich conference, the German federal prosecutor announced that there would be no further proceedings against Mr. Rumsfeld and the other Americans. The German law provides for action in cases where the governments of the foreign nationals in question are unwilling or unable to act on their own to investigate allegations of war crimes. The German prosecutor’s office, as the International Herald Tribune reported, noted that there was “no indication that the authorities and courts of the United States have refrained or would refrain” from investigating Abu Ghraib. The German ambassador to the United States quickly got a fax off to Mr. Rumsfeld to that effect, hoping the news would clear the way for him to attend the Munich conference. It did.

Mr. Rumsfeld was supposed to appear at the podium following German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, an unusually high-level attendee. But in surprise No. 2, the chancellor called in sick, canceling the Munich appearance as well as a scheduled meeting with French President Chirac and Spanish Prime Minister Zapatero. As one Eastern European participant cracked to me, Mr. Rumsfeld gave him a virus.

We come then to surprises No. 3 and 4. In Mr. Schroeder’s speech, read in his absence by Defense Minister Peter Struck, the chancellor declared that NATO “is no longer the primary venue where trans-Atlantic partners discuss and coordinate strategies.” It isn’t? Since when? And if it isn’t, more to the point, what is?

Mr. Schroeder then called for the governments of the United States and the European Union to form a U.N.-style high-level panel to consider “adapting our cooperation structures.” What this meant is a subject of some uncertainty. Subsequent conversations I had led to the speculative conclusion that what the chancellor has in mind is a more formal structured dialogue between the United States and the European Union.

If so, that’s fine. But was it just poor drafting that gave birth to the “no longer” brush-off of NATO’s relevance? Or is that the attitude Mr. Bush will be running into next week?

I’m just delighted that the German government has decided not to investigate the American secretary of defense as a war criminal. But I hope our adapted “cooperation structures,” whatever they turn out to be, are based on something a little warmer than agreement not to indict one another’s senior officials.