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March 1, 2002
Notes from the Pentagon

Iraq fortifies
Iraq's forces are making preparations for a U.S. military strike, according to U.S. intelligence officials. The Iraqis appear to be taking seriously President Bush's recent identification of Baghad as constituting part of an "axis of evil" for its support for international terrorism and its development of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.

According to the officials, satellite photographs have revealed that Iraqi military forces have begun building "berms" earthen barriers around key military facilities and equipment. The construction is a clear indication that the Iraqis believe a U.S. military strike is imminent.

Gun runner
The Bush administration has switched policy on Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. The gloves are off. U.S. officials are no longer reluctant to criticize the elected left-wing leader, who appears to be taking his country away from democracy and toward Castro-style socialism.

Now, there is another reason for U.S. anger toward Mr. Chavez. U.S. intelligence reports say his government is supplying weapons to Colombia's public enemy No. 1 the terrorist rebel army known as FARC, or the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.

"He's definitely been doing this," said a senior policy-maker. "It's small shipments of small arms."

Some administration officials want to change policy and let the U.S. military directly aid Colombian President Andres Pastrana in his new war against FARC. Now, most aid is limited to anti-narcotics operations and cannot be used for anti-insurgency missions.

Most of FARC's arms come from Middle East weapons bazaars. But U.S. intelligence has not linked the arms shipments to any particular regime.

Time gap
Insiders in the Bush administration are talking about the "six-hour gap" the time it took U.S. officials to endorse Colombian President Andres Pastrana's decision last week to end peace talks and go to war against FARC.

As country after country issued statements last week endorsing Mr. Pastrana's bold move, Washington stayed silent. Finally, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told reporters the United States supported the Colombian president.

"We were behind every Latin American country in voicing support," one official told us. "Even France offered support before we did."

Sources said the delay was not because of reluctance at the Pentagon or State Department. A formal position statement got bogged down at the White House National Security Agency staff. It "couldn't get its act together," an insider said.

Snubbing Beijing
China's Vice Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing got the cold shoulder from Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld earlier this month.

Mr. Li, a noted hard-line communist who once served as ambassador to the United States, had asked specifically to meet with Mr. Rumsfeld at the Pentagon on Feb. 4.

The answer from Mr. Rumsfeld: "I'm too busy."

Mr. Li did meet with Vice President Richard B. Cheney, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and White House National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice.

The defense secretary, however, is said to have little interest in schmoozing with any Chinese officials after the manner in which Beijing handled the April 1 incident over the South China Sea.

We are told he is still angry over the incarceration of 23 U.S. military personnel after the incident. A Chinese interceptor jet cut off a U.S. EP-3 surveillance plane and nearly killed its crew in a midair collision. The crew made an emergency landing on Hainan island, where instead of getting help, they were imprisoned for 11 days.

Mr. Rumsfeld cut off all formal U.S. military exchanges with China as a result and, despite pressure from pro-China officials in the Pentagon, is resisting calls to restart the exchanges. Critics dismiss the contacts as one-sided in favor of bolstering Chinese war-fighting capabilities through access to sensitive U.S. military facilities.

A spokesman for Mr. Rumsfeld had no immediate comment. Another Pentagon spokesman, Lt. Cmdr. Jeff Davis, also would not comment on why Mr. Rumsfeld did not meet Mr. Li. But he said "the appropriate level" for any meeting would have been a session with Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who was out of the country at the time.

U.S. Southern Command, one of the Pentagon's war-fighting commands, has been in the doldrums of late, military officers tell us.

All the action in the war on terrorism resides in other areas, such as U.S. Pacific Command and U.S. Central Command.

The Miami-based command also has been without a four-star CINC, or commander in chief, since President Bush picked Marine Gen. Peter Pace to be Joint Chiefs of Staff vice chairman.

"SouthCom does not have a wartime focus," said an active-duty officer. "They haven't dealt with a real military crisis in quite a while and it shows."

But things may be looking up. Some administration officials are pushing for a more active U.S. military role in the war against FARC, a terrorist group in Colombia committed to kidnappings, running drug operations and overthrowing democracies. If that happens, SouthCom will lead the way.

Also, we hear Mr. Bush will nominate a four-star general to succeed Gen. Pace. There had been talk that SouthCom would diminish in stature and be run permanently by a three-star officer.

Anti-Bush envoy
The administration is set to announce its long-delayed choice for top U.S. diplomat in Taiwan: Douglas Paal.

The appointment of Mr. Paal is opposed by conservatives who object to his recent statements that are viewed as pro-China and anti-Taiwan. In June, Mr. Paal said in a speech that President Bush "misspoke" in saying last spring that the United States would do whatever it takes to defend Taiwan from Chinese attack.

Mr. Paal's remark was viewed by many observers as an attempt to usurp the president on the issue of Taiwan. It was the most blatant of a series of efforts by advocates of "engagement" with Beijing, including Mr. Paal, to try to scale back the president's hard-line commitment to defending Taiwan. Mr. Paal said that after the president "misspoke," administration spokesmen had showed "moderation in reverting to the one-China policy," that is, Beijing's view of Taiwan as part of communist China.

Vice President Richard B. Cheney showed no such moderation, however. Mr. Cheney said several days after the president's remarks that the statement was calculated "to reiterate that very strong determination on our part, that there should not be a resort to force by the mainland."

A U.S. official told us the Paal appointment has been pushed by James Kelly, the assistant secretary of state for East Asia, with backing from Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage.

The last hurdle for the appointment is said to be Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who still has reservations about sending Mr. Paal to Taipei to represent U.S. interests, the official said.

Bored media
Liberal Democrats are not the only ones growing bored with President Bush's war on terrorism. The Washington media also seems tired of writing about the latest clash with al Qaeda, say administration officials. Purported bombing mistakes and the well-being of terrorist prisoners make front-page news. Some columnists suddenly do not like the Pentagon helping Hollywood produce war movies as if director Frank Capra never asked the U.S. military for input during many of his World War II films.

The media's anti-Pentagon mood has rankled Richard J. Santos, national commander of the 2.8-million-member American Legion.

"Today's media appears to be more interested in finding fault and being first to break the story," Mr. Santos said.

He adds: "The military and the entertainment industry have long joined hands not for sinister reasons, but to call together loyal Americans to support their government's wartime efforts."

  • Bill Gertz and Rowan Scarborough are Pentagon reporters. Gertz can be reached at 202/636-3274 or by e-mail at Scarborough can be reached at 202/636-3208 or by e-mail at

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