NATO backs U.S. missile defense plan for Europe

Posted in NATO , United States | 04-Apr-08 | Author: Steven Erlanger and Steven Lee| Source: International Herald Tribune

Prime Minister Gordon Brown, left, and President George W. Bush attending the opening session of the NATO summit in Bucharest on Thursday.

BUCHAREST: NATO leaders agreed Thursday to endorse U.S. missile defense plans for Europe and provide more troops for Afghanistan as American officials tried to put a brave face on the alliance's refusal to back the desire of President George W. Bush to bring Ukraine and Georgia into a closer relationship.

Washington's failure to win over Germany, France, Italy, Spain and other crucial European countries to its view on Ukraine and Georgia was considered by some countries of Central and Eastern Europe to have sent a message of alliance weakness to Moscow, a day before President Vladimir Putin of Russia was to make his first visit to a NATO summit meeting.

The alliance decided not to offer Ukraine and George entry into its membership action plan, a set of requirements and reforms necessary to achieve full alliance membership. Instead, after a long debate among NATO leaders over dinner Wednesday night, NATO pledged that the two countries would become members eventually and agreed that foreign ministers would review the decision in December.

NATO officials suggested that invitation to the membership program might come in a year, at the next annual meeting to be jointly held by Germany and France, or in 2010.

Bush could claim success in the NATO endorsement of his missile defense plan, despite Russian objections, and in an agreement with the Czech Republic, announced Thursday, to build a radar for the system.

Bush also succeeded in getting NATO to agree to increase troop numbers in Afghanistan, a Washington priority.

The main contributor was France, whose president, Nicolas Sarkozy, said that Paris would send another battalion - about 700 troops - to eastern Afghanistan, freeing up U.S. soldiers to deploy more in the south, where the fighting against the Taliban is heaviest and in support of the Canadians.

Sarkozy, in a news conference with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, again said that France intended to reintegrate fully into NATO once a separate European defense pillar became a reality. "Let Europe's defense pole advance and we will continue to advance toward NATO," he said. "I repeat, these are two things that go together, not one or the other, so let's wait for the summit" in 2009.

Sarkozy praised Bush for talking about "the need for European defenses that would complement the alliance," remarks that, in Sarkozy's opinion, represented "a historic turning point in U.S. policy."

He added: "It was a gesture we have been waiting for, that has been noticed. It's a gesture that shows understanding for what is happening in Europe."

Bush praised Sarkozy, too, saying that the trip by the French leader to the United States last autumn had an impact "like the latest incarnation of Elvis," a senior U.S. official said.

NATO extended full membership invitations to Croatia and Albania - countries of the western Balkans. But in an embarrassment for NATO, Greece vetoed the invitation of Macedonia because Athens insists that the country must have a name different from the northern Greek province of Macedonia to avoid revanchism and instability. The Macedonians walked out of the meeting.

NATO runs by consensus, giving Greece a veto, but most NATO officials regard the Greek objection as ludicrous. Macedonia is often known as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or Fyrom, because of earlier Greek objections.

"This is a huge disappointment," said the Macedonian government negotiator Nikola Dimitrov. "It's very much against stability in the Balkans."

Addressing his NATO colleagues, Bush praised Macedonian reforms and said that the "name issue needs to be resolved quickly, so that Macedonia can be welcomed into NATO as soon as possible."

Bush did not mention Greece. Nor did he refer to Ukraine and Georgia.

He did endorse the broadest possible policy of inviting European democracies to join the alliance.

"We must give other nations seeking membership a full and fair hearing," he said. "As we invite new members today we're also clear that the progress of enlargement will continue."

Privately, German and British officials criticized the Bush administration for not coming to grips soon enough with the Ukraine and Georgian problem. They suggested that Bush's failure to try to work through the issue with Russia in advance created doubts among allies like Germany and France, which also felt that Georgian leadership was unstable and that Ukraine, with a divided population and a new government, was not yet ready to start the membership process.

Borys Tarasyuk, a former Ukrainian foreign minister and supporter of NATO membership, said in an interview: "Moscow will be very satisfied with the outcome. But I'd like to say to them that this is not the end of the story. Sooner or later it will happen."

The foreign minister of Georgia, David Bakradze, said: "A no for Georgia will show those people in the Kremlin who think that by a policy of blackmail, by arrogance and aggression" they can influence NATO decisions.

Istvan Gyarmati, a former Hungarian official and director of the International Center for Democratic Transition, said that "this is a sad day for Ukraine and for the alliance."

Putin "will say that the policy of brutality we started in Munich," when he attacked the United States at an international conference in February 2007, "has worked," Gyarmati said. "This is the result of a Western appeasement policy and the Russians will be extremely proud of it."

Tomas Valasek, director of foreign policy and defense at the Center for European Reform, said that not letting Ukraine and Georgia into the membership process "is bad enough, but it also leaves our policy toward Russia in confusion." The alliance had made it clear that it would try to work with Russia on security, no longer had any military plans against it and would make its own decisions about membership.

"But now all this is up in the air," Valasek said, citing the comment this week by the foreign minister of Germany, Frank-Walter Steinmeyer, in an interview with the Leipziger Volkszeitung, that after Russian anger over Kosovo's independence, "we could see no convincing reason to create more tension."

Valasek said: "Now we must again avoid the impression that brutality works."

NATO votes on membership were held in secret, but Stephen Hadley, Bush's national security adviser, said that half of the NATO allies supported inviting Ukraine and Georgia now.

Seeking to put the best face on a defeat, Hadley pointed to language in the NATO statement that said the two countries ultimately would become members of the alliance, although that was a largely symbolic expression of support. He did say that the NATO foreign ministers would reconsider the issue again in December.

Ronald Asmus, a former official in the administration of President Bill Clinton, and head of the Brussels office of the German Marshall Fund, said that Bush had "a modest success on Afghanistan and got what he wanted on missile defense," but leaves "a legacy of divisiveness" over Ukraine and Georgia.

"It was a classic example of bad diplomacy - waiting too long to decide, then going public and then trying to roll people, and only getting half a loaf," Asmus said.

As for Greece and Macedonia, he said, "Only Washington could have taken Greece to the woodshed on this issue, and it didn't do so."