Off Pace

OFF PACE….It was pretty embarrassing a month ago when Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Peter Pace publicly, and awkwardly, contradicted Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld over whether American troops have a responsibility to intervene if they witness torture by Iraqi authorities. Indeed, the two were standing side by side at a Pentagon press briefing when they couldn’t agree on the non-trivial issue of preventing torture.

Yesterday, however, Gen. Pace insisted that it was all a big misunderstanding. When he and Rumsfeld took conflicting positions, Pace said yesterday, they were actually saying the same thing.

When General Pace was asked again on Thursday by reporters in Bahrain about the exchange, he said for the first time that he and Mr. Rumsfeld had not really disagreed at all. General Pace said he was talking about the obligations of American soldiers in a war zone like Iraq or Afghanistan; Mr. Rumsfeld, he said, was talking about the obligations of Americans in a nonhostile setting like, say, Tokyo.

“When I discussed it with him after the fact, it seemed to me he was talking about global conditions, and I knew that I was talking specifically about conditions in Iraq,” General Pace said in an interview later aboard his plane as he continued a weeklong troop visit in the Middle East.

Gen. Pace is usually a pretty credible guy, but his explanation is clearly wrong.

During the Nov. 29 press briefing, UPI’s Pam Hess asked specifically about torture by Iraqi authorities. Rumsfeld said, “[O]bviously, the United States does not have a responsibility” beyond voicing disapproval. Pace disagreed, saying, “It is the absolute responsibility of every U.S. service member, if they see inhumane treatment being conducted, to intervene, to stop it.” Rumsfeld hoped to clarify the disagreement, noting to Pace, “I don’t think you mean they have an obligation to physically stop it; it’s to report it.” But Pace stood his ground, arguing, “If they are physically present when inhumane treatment is taking place, sir, they have an obligation to try to stop it.”

Yesterday’s unpersuasive spin notwithstanding, it’s not at all comforting that the Defense Secretary and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff can’t quite get together on how the U.S. military will respond to torture by Iraqi officials. And the fact that they’re still trying — and failing — to explain the disagreement a month later is hardly reassuring.