Will Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld skip a major security affairs conference in Germany next month or won't he?
Two weeks ago, he sent word to organizers of the annual event not to expect him, saying he would be traveling elsewhere in mid-February. The news, reported in Germany but not announced here, prompted complaints that Rumsfeld was snubbing Europe and speculation that his move was in reaction to a legal complaint filed against him in Germany.
By late yesterday, however, the Pentagon's chief spokesman, Lawrence T. Di Rita, was waffling on the secretary's plans. He said Rumsfeld is weighing a number of "competing scheduling priorities," including other possible travel and preparation for congressional testimony on the defense budget. Di Rita left open the possibility Rumsfeld will attend the conference.
"I just don't know who will end up representing the Department of Defense," Di Rita said in a phone interview.
The event, known formally as the Munich Conference on Security Policy, marked its 40th anniversary last year. It draws hundreds of cabinet ministers, lawmakers and other prominent figures from many parts of Europe. Washington tends to be represented not only by the defense secretary but also by a large congressional delegation. This year, about a dozen U.S. lawmakers plan to attend, led by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.).
Word that Rumsfeld was not coming had surprised the conference's chief organizer, Horst Teltschik, who had assumed the decision was final.
"I'm really disappointed," he said earlier yesterday. By not attending, he added, Rumsfeld would be missing an important opportunity to explain the goals and initiatives of the Bush administration at the start of its second term.
"The defense secretary's speech has traditionally been a highlight of the conference," said Wolfgang Ischinger, Germany's ambassador to the United States. "I assume there'll be quite a bit of disappointment if this year he's not going to show up."
Bush administration officials have signaled that one of their second-term priorities will be to mend transatlantic ties that were badly frayed by disagreement over the war in Iraq. Between them, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her deputy, Robert B. Zoellick, plan to visit every NATO ally this spring. President Bush expects to meet with NATO leaders in Brussels on Feb. 22, then stop in Germany.
Some analysts warned yesterday that if Rumsfeld is a no-show in Munich, it will be taken as a fresh affront, undercutting administration efforts at a rapprochement.
"It's a funny year to choose not to go," said Michael E. O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution in Washington.
But others surmised that Rumsfeld may be trying to keep U.S.-European tensions from flaring anew by removing himself as a potential source of friction. His attendance at the conference two years ago was marked by a sharp clash with Germany's foreign minister over preparations for the war in Iraq and drew thousands of antiwar demonstrators into Munich streets. Last year, Rumsfeld delivered an impassioned defense of the Iraq war.
"Rumsfeld has been considered in Europe far and away the most controversial figure in the U.S. government," said William Drozdiak, president of the American Council on Germany. "He might be worried about the reception he could receive and concerned it could set a bad tone in advance of the president's visit."
The German press agency Deutsche Presse Agentur first reported last week that Rumsfeld had decided not to go to Munich. The agency said the decision was prompted by a criminal complaint, filed Nov. 30 with the federal prosecutor's office in Germany, accusing him of war crimes in connection with detainee abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
The 160-page complaint was brought by the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, a group of lawyers representing four Iraqis who say they were mistreated at the prison outside Baghdad. In addition to Rumsfeld, the complaint singles out eight other high-ranking U.S. military authorities and former CIA director George J. Tenet.
It is based on a German law, enacted in 2002, that gives the Karlsruhe Court "universal jurisdiction" in cases involving alleged war crimes. A prosecutor is obligated to investigate the claims but does not have to act on them further. So far, German authorities have said that the complaint against Rumsfeld and the others is being studied.
"We've been in discussions with the Germans about the case and have expressed concern because it would set a precedent for those who want to pursue politicized prosecutions," a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Berlin said yesterday.
Rumsfeld is known to have fumed privately with aides about the case. But Di Rita said it has had "nothing to do" with the secretary's deliberations over whether to attend the conference.
Di Rita also dismissed concerns that a Rumsfeld absence in Munich would show a disregard for the Europeans. He said Rumsfeld plans on attending a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Nice, France, just before the Munich event, which is set for Feb. 12 and 13.
Rumsfeld missed the conference in 2002, during the war in Afghanistan, and sent his deputy, Paul D. Wolfowitz. This time, Teltschik was told, Wolfowitz could not attend because of an administration rule preventing both the defense secretary and his deputy from being out of town at the same time.
Teltschik was notified to expect Douglas J. Feith, Rumsfeld's top policy adviser -- who announced Wednesday that he would be leaving the Pentagon by summer.