News Analysis: At NATO, allies try a return to diplomacy

Posted in NATO | 09-Dec-03 | Author: Elaine Sciolino| Source: The New York Times

U.S. and Europe start to mend their rift over the Iraq war

PARIS - After months of acrimony, Europe and the United States are modulating their tone and trying to work more cooperatively on the divisive issues of Iraq, Afghanistan and European defense cooperation.

The conciliatory stance on the U.S. side is motivated at least in part by the urgent need to have NATO countries contribute more troops and money to Iraq and to deliver promised and much-needed troops and equipment to Afghanistan. But there is a universal recognition among NATO members that the rift both within NATO and with the United States because of the Iraq war has to be repaired if the alliance is to remain viable.

"I won't say everybody is pretending that everything is fine, but people are really trying to be more constructive, less emotional and, well, diplomatic," said a senior NATO military official who participated in meetings of its defense and foreign ministers in Brussels last week.

The most obvious evidence of the new tone was the public posture of the U.S. defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, at the NATO defense ministers' meeting last week. "Maybe we ought to try to do a better job of communicating," he said at one point, much to the surprise of European defense ministers and military officers.

Instead of repeating his harsh assessment about the European Union's plan for closer European defense cooperation separate from NATO, Rumsfeld praised the Europeans for developing military capabilities that could deploy rapidly in emergencies.

More surprisingly, perhaps, he did not criticize France and Germany, the two most important American allies who opposed the Iraq war, for refusing to send troops or give financial support to help stabilize Iraq.

Rumsfeld's message was followed by a call from the secretary of state, Colin Powell, to NATO foreign ministers to consider expanding NATO's role in Iraq, a clear admission that the United States needs to internationalize its Iraq mission if it is to succeed. No one embraced the idea, but no one said no.

"That was a sea change - that there wasn't the derision and hostility toward the U.S. on Iraq that's been here since the beginning of the year," said a senior official who attended the meetings.

Finally, on Afghanistan, suggestions by both Rumsfeld and Powell that the United States would like NATO to assume more responsibility, perhaps eventually taking over the entire American-led operation, took their European partners by surprise.

On the European side, even President Jacques Chirac of France, the staunchest opponent of the Iraq war effort, is looking for ways to play a more active role in both NATO and Iraq.

In a 90-minute meeting last week with Senator Joseph Biden, the Delaware Democrat and ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Chirac laid out scenarios in which France might be willing to participate in helping to stabilize Iraq, according to an official familiar with the meeting.

Biden declined to comment on the substance of his conversation with Chirac, but confirmed in an interview that Chirac was seeking ways to repair the relationship with Washington.

Chirac also told Biden that France has requested the appointment of two French one-star generals in NATO's command structure, one at NATO headquarters in Mons, Belgium, the other in Norfolk, Virginia, as a sign of willingness to work more closely with Washington on security matters.

"This is a time to be grown up, show a little sophistication," Biden said in Brussels last week, in urging the Bush administration to mend ties.

Although France is not part of the military command of NATO, it has the second-largest contingent in a new NATO Reaction Response Force, which was inaugurated in October to respond quickly to long-range crisis missions. In Afghanistan, American and French soldiers are training the new Afghan army, and American and French special forces conduct joint antiterrorist operations near the Pakistani border.

A senior NATO military officer said the U.S. military considers the French military the most expeditionary army in Europe, and is eager to expand military cooperation in NATO. France still has a contingency plan on the shelf to send 8,000 to 10,000 troops to Iraq if political circumstances were right, senior NATO officials said.

The Europeans have abandoned a plan to create a European Union military headquarters in Tervuren, Belgium, that would be separate from NATO, opting instead for a small operational planning unit in the existing European Union military staff headquarters. That move followed an agreement among Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain, Chirac and Chancellor Gerhard Schröder that the European Union should be allowed to plan and run its own military operations. In its deal with France and Germany, Britain won assurances that a European Union military operation without NATO participation would be a remote possibility. Even if a European Union military mission were planned and operated from a still-nonexistent European Union center, it would be subject to a veto by any one European Union member, British officials said. Blair is convinced that he has been able to help shape the debate on European defense and that he can control the outcome in a way that will be acceptable to Washington.

As a result, according to some diplomats, Bush urged Rumsfeld to say nothing at the NATO meetings - especially in public -- that would ruffle feathers. When asked about European defense in Brussels last week, for example, Rumsfeld admitted that the issue was "above my pay grade at this stage and would get "wrestled with" at the highest levels of governments.