[OUTLOOK]The reasonable Mr. RumsfeldDonald Rumsfeld, the U.S. defense secretary, is by far and away the most articulate member of the Bush administration. Even if he wants to say nothing about an issue, Mr. Rumsfeld comes across as thoughtful, warm and often amusing.
Whether he is addressing the press, troops in the field, or the friends and relatives of dead soldiers, the feeling he gives off is one of deep reassurance. Even if you disagree with what he says, he appears to be a government servant with an utter grip on reality and reason.
Mr. Rumsfeld’s sort of clarity ― that of a true believer ― is hard to challenge and overcome. After all, few people with so much power would ever be willing to admit they might be wrong about important things.
On the other hand, the U.S. defense chief has no problem confronting those who do disagree. He can mock, he can chide and he doesn’t mind reveling in it. You need but recall “the old Europe, new Europe” gambit. And he can be refreshingly blunt, saying in a memo, for instance, that America probably faces a “long, hard slog” in Iraq.
Now he’s back in South Korea, as a kind of American praetorian, offering justification for U.S. military efforts in various places around the world. And he wants Korea to have a role, slogging alongside the United States.
Mr. Rumsfeld can be persuasive. As a much younger man in his first incarnation as defense secretary for President Gerald Ford, he came to Seoul to confront President Park Chung Hee over the Korean dictator’s effort to build a nuclear weapons program.
This was in 1976, years before North Korea developed its own nuclear ambitions. Historical accounts say Mr. Rumsfeld was no less reasonable and forceful with Mr. Park in threatening to withdraw U.S. support for South Korea. Mr. Park abandoned his program to build a bomb.
Today, the United States wants Korea to deploy more troops in Iraq than President Roh Moo-hyun seems to think is politically wise. Reasonable as always, Mr. Rumsfeld says simply that every country has to make its own decision about what’s in its national interest.
Left unspoken, at least publicly, is that this goes for the United States as well, and that is causing shudders in Korea.
As America’s chief military policy maker, Mr. Rumsfeld has been issuing unsettling statements. These concern the possible repositioning of the U.S. forces that have kept the Korean Peninsula stable for 50 years. The perceived undercurrent is if the Seoul government cannot find the will to help the United States in Iraq, then America probably needs to take a close look at how its forces are arrayed in Northeast Asia.
That could seem reasonable too, but it amounts to a fair degree of arm-twisting and has resulted in a stream of anguished statements from Roh government officials about how important Korea’s alliance with the United States is. It has also uncovered a bitter fight inside Mr. Roh’s administration, which for weeks has been flip-flopping on the numbers and types of additional troops to send to Iraq.
After a series of conflicting leaks, the president issued a “guideline” late last week that put a limit of 3,000 soldiers on any new deployment and indicated the Korean forces would not be dispatched for combat purposes. This came after the defense ministry said it was looking at a 5,000-man contingent, and maybe more, geared to fight. Then following the president’s demarche, Korea’s foreign affairs minister, Yoon Young-kwan, said “no final decision” has been made about the deployment.
Yesterday, the U.S.-Korea joint statement on Mr. Rumsfeld’s talks again gave no hint about the numbers, beyond emphasizing that the defense secretary “expressed appreciation for President Roh Moo-hyun’s decision to provide additional forces to Iraq.”
The moral clarity of which Mr. Rumsfeld is fond goes like this: The United States spilled blood in Korea to keep the southern part of the peninsula free and out from under communist dominance. Americans are now spilling more blood to offer Iraqis freedom and the chance for a better life. South Korea should appreciate the situation and lend a hand.
No matter what Korean officials decide, the U.S. defense chief will sound gracious and reasonable. Still, it’s good to remember that it will be deeds, not words, that count with Mr. Rumsfeld at the moment.
At the same time, Mr. Rumsfeld should take note that America is being compared to the Roman Empire in Korea’s serious press. That was the subject of a 16-part series produced by this newspaper’s parent, the JoongAng Ilbo. The series was part exposition on the extent of U.S. power in the world and part diatribe about American dominance.
Something Mr. Rumsfeld will also no doubt take into account is the U.S. Embassy in the center of Seoul, which looks like a lot of U.S. facilities around the world. Not just the heavy gates, the high walls or razor wire that protect the Americans inside from threats, but also the scores of young police standing in rank and file behind riot shields, night and day.
It’s not a good feeling for American expatriates to see U.S. officials on the defensive as they seem to be in Korea, with the host country being forced to take so many precautions.
This is a sign that U.S. power is not universally regarded as just or benign. Koreans readily recall official U.S. backing for a long line of South Korean dictators and lukewarm support for Mr. Roh, a democratically elected leader. It’s reasonable to think Mr. Rumsfeld understands this.
* The writer is the editor of the JoongAng Daily.
by Charles D. Sherman