MUNICH -- Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld pugnaciously defended the war in Iraq to his harshest critics during a European security conference yesterday that was intended to ease diplomatic tensions over Washington's policy in the Middle East.
European leaders and Rumsfeld spoke eloquently of reconciliation, but their overall tenor underscored the differences still existing between them over the Iraq invasion and how to handle future threats. The Europeans -- although in softer rhetoric than their condemnations of the war a year ago -- insisted that unilateral actions by any country weaken NATO and the United Nations.
Statements yesterday by Rumsfeld and Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer of Germany highlighted the trans-Atlantic differences. Both men said instilling democracy and freedom to the Middle East would stem terrorism and the proliferation of biological and chemical weapons. But Rumsfeld endorsed preemptive military action against rogue states -- a view not shared by Fischer.
Rumsfeld's effort was the latest in a week of appearances by top administration figures seeking to justify US policy in invading and occupying Iraq. Before the war, the administration said it was trying to halt the spread of weapons of mass destruction, but no such weapons have been found.
Rumsfeld said Iraq triggered the war because of Saddam Hussein's "deception and defiance. It was his choice. And if he had chosen differently -- if the Iraqi regime had taken the [disarmament] steps Libya is now taking -- there would have been no war." He added that the terrorist threat to the world is too dangerous to ignore, saying: "In a world where a small minority of extremists have the power to kill innocents on a massive scale, every other hope of free people is threatened."
But Defense Minister Sergei B. Ivanov of Russia said: "It is wrong to fight terrorism with illegal means and only with military force."
Much of the 40th Annual Munich Security Conference was dedicated to moving beyond the animosities that have divided NATO allies over the last year. European officials acknowledged that successes in Iraq and Afghanistan are keys to world peace. Such sentiments are critical to the United States, which is seeking an increased role for NATO in the Middle East and Central Asia.
So far, Germany and France, bitter opponents of the war, may not commit troops to Iraq in the near future, if at all. But NATO's new secretary general, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, indicated that even reluctant NATO countries should be compelled to send forces to Iraq under certain conditions.
"It's time to put the differences of the past behind us," said Scheffer. "It's time to get back to business. The trans-Atlantic community has realized that we have no more time to waste. . . . There cannot be the slightest doubt that winning the peace in Iraq is in everybody's collective interest. If a legitimate Iraqi government asks for our assistance, and if we have the support of the United Nations, NATO should not abdicate from its responsibilities."
But Fischer suggested a large NATO role would be too great a gamble. "The risk of failure and the potentially very serious, possible fatal, consequences for the alliance absolutely must be taken into consideration. Honesty demands that I do not conceal my deep skepticism on this account."