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Rumsfeld condemned for insulting Germans during 'fence-mending' jaunt into Old Europe

As an exercise in mending fences between America and its recalcitrant allies in what it calls Old Europe, Donald Rumsfeld's visit to Germany could hardly be considered a resounding success.

Having already ruffled feathers by lumping Germany in a group with America's long-term foes Cuba and Libya, the US Defence Secretary used a speech in Munich at the weekend to claim that those countries who refused to back the US were guilty of undermining the United Nations and setting it "on a path to ridicule." Such irresponsibility was "breathtaking", he snorted.

"There are those who counsel that we should delay preparations [for war against Iraq]," he said. "Ironically, that approach could well make war more likely, not less, because delaying preparations sends a signal of uncertainty." He added: "We all hope for a peaceful resolution. But the one chance for a peaceful resolution is to make clear that free nations are prepared to use force if necessary – that the world is united and, while reluctant, is willing to act. It is difficult to believe there still could be any question in the minds of reasonable people open to the facts before them. The threat is there to see ... Really the only question remaining is: what will we do about it?"

Mr Rumsfeld went further still. France and Germany risked diplomatic isolation, he said, should they decide to go against America. Then – citing the decision of the two countries, with that of Belgium, to oppose Turkey's request to Nato for help against potential attacks from Iraq, Mr Rumsfeld said he found their behaviour inexcusable.

"Turkey is an ally. An ally that is risking everything ... How can you refuse it help?" he fulminated in an interview with the Italian daily La Repubblica, describing the French, German and Belgian position as "shameful."

All this in one afternoon at the 39th Munich Conference on International Security. So much for fence-mending.

Naturally enough, Old Europe was outraged by both Mr Rumsfeld's comments and his John Wayne swagger.

Joschka Fischer, the German Foreign Minister, whose speech immediately followed Mr Rumsfeld's at the security conference, was noticeably taken back as he reached the podium. "Why now?" he asked of the Defence Secretary's thunderous insistence. "Are we in a situation where we should resort to violence?" In a moment of genuine theatre, he then turned to the US delegation, switched from German to English and answered his own question: "Excuse me. I am not convinced."

Commentators in the German media – as well as more than 20,000 demonstrators in the nearby Marienplatz protesting against the US call for military action – were angered by what they considered America's arrogance.

The Welt am Sonntag newspaper said: "Rumsfeld ... has not only insulted the Chancellor but the Germans in general. There can be no excuse for such behaviour.

"By making these stupid comparisons, Rumsfeld has achieved something that he certainly did not intend to. The American Defence Secretary has succeeded in helping the Chancellor [Gerhard Schröder]. Many Germans who were initially put off by Schröder's electorally motivated manoeuvres over Iraq are now fully behind him as a result of Rumsfeld's insults."

Would Mr Rumsfeld have been concerned that he had upset the delegates, fresh from snacking on smoked salmon? Not a bit. His comments were neither a slip nor misrepresentative of the message the Bush administration wished to project.

While some may have considered Mr Rumsfeld's trip to Munich an opportunity to mend fences with nations usually considered allies, for the Bush administration it was a chance to bang the heads of those countries with which Washington is increasingly losing patience.

Mr Rumsfeld's comments – referring to France's and Germany's apparent unwillingness to support America in its attack as well as the UN's "irresponsible" decision to allow Libya to lead a Human Rights commission – would have been checked with the White House in advance.

In Mr Rumsfeld, now 70, President Bush has his most hardened and experienced street fighter, a veteran of bureaucratic turf wars and international arm-twisting. Thuggish, arrogant, swaggering and tough-as-nails are all descriptions one regularly hears in Washington when people describe the Defence Secretary. His inappropriate nickname, Rummy, makes him sound far too friendly.

"He shoots from the hip," said one official who regularly deals with Mr Rumsfeld, who also served as Defence Secretary in President Gerald Ford's administration in the 1970s. "He's tough. If the administration wants to send out a more diplomatic approach, they sent out either [the Secretary of State, Colin] Powell or [the National Security Adviser, Condoleezza] Rice, but Rumsfeld is their hit man.

"Once he has made his mind up his is very hard to change. But he is also very intelligent, very able. You can see his mind whirring when he appears at those press conferences at the Pentagon."

Mr Rumsfeld – seething that he learnt via the press of the latest Franco-German proposals for enforced inspections and expanded "no-fly zones" in Iraq – will have hoped that his rumbustious appearance and remarks in Munich will have furthered Washington's cause for military action rather than made matters worse. That remains to be seen.