Bush's 'rottweiler' turns on the charm

The rottweiler of the Bush administration, Donald Rumsfeld, turned up on British television last night de-fanged, de-clawed and at times ­ if David Dimbleby had not asked some rather aggressive questions ­ almost purring.

Mr Rumsfeld's half-hour interview on BBC2 appeared to be part of a charm offensive by an America taken aback by two signal policy failures: its inability to convince public opinion of the urgent need for a war on Iraq and the increasingly perilous political position of its ally-in-chief, Tony Blair.

"Rummy" was at his most urbane: softly spoken and almost reasonable. He sat back, looking quizzical and not allowing himself to be riled. Which was a good thing, because among the questions asked by a well-briefed Dimbleby were some that American politicians are all too rarely asked at home. Mr Rumsfeld had to account, not all too well, for his 1983 handshake with Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, when, as a "private" businessman, he went on a mission authorised by President Ronald Reagan. He was asked about the perception of double standards: why did the US support Israel, despite its non-observance of UN Security Council resolutions and its weapons capability, although it was going hell for leather after President Saddam.

Pressing the case for action against Iraq in the absence of positive evidence about weapons of mass destruction, Mr Rumsfeld said President Saddam had "learnt to live in an inspections environment. He does things underground. He's very skilful at denial and deception."

He also seized the chance to "correct" some recent howlers. As for "old" and "new" Europe, he had not meant to write off "old" Europe (ie France), he had simply been saying that, with enlargement, the centre of gravity of Europe was shifting. And, by the way, he had actually meant "Nato" and not the EU.

The Defense Secretary said the US was prepared to give the UN more time but he warned that time was running out. Iraq was a threat to the world, as well as to US interests. "The issue that's before the world, it seems to me, is the pervasiveness of weapons of mass destruction and the spread of these," he said. "The situation with Iraq is that we're at the end of the string. We've tried diplomacy for 12 years."

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