Bush administration looks for NATO support of Iraqi disarmament

Friday, November 15, 2002

WASHINGTON -- President Bush, emboldened by unanimous support from the United Nations Security Council, turns next to the NATO alliance for backing -- in words, if not yet in deeds -- of his demands for Iraq to disarm.

Shifting diplomatic gears from the Security Council vote to next week's NATO summit, U.S. officials expect the alliance to make a political statement of "allied solidarity." But the White House has not yet asked the alliance to consider any collective contribution to war if Saddam Hussein refuses to surrender his weapons of mass destruction.

"It hasn't crossed my mind, we've not proposed it," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said in advance of the summit in Prague.

As one NATO official privately explained, there is no attempt to put together a NATO military declaration because the Iraqi crisis is currently on a diplomatic track through the United Nations. With Germany holding to its staunch anti-war position, the unanimity that NATO proceedings require will be difficult to achieve on any position going further than the United Nations' demand that Saddam disarm or risk "serious consequences."

Nicholas Burns, Bush's ambassador to NATO, framed what the United States wants from NATO in terms of a simple endorsement of the Security Council resolution.

"At Prague, we must speak with one voice and tell Saddam that the will of the U.N. must be respected and that we will stand together until this problem is resolved," said Burns.

The 19 NATO partners meet against a Dec. 8 deadline for Saddam to disclose all aspects of his weapons programs. But the summit is being convened foremost to approve, with the United States' assent, another round of membership invitations to seven ex-communist states -- Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Romania, Slovenia, Slovakia and Bulgaria -- while hopefuls Macedonia and Albania are expected to be put off.

NATO, casting an eye to its own relevance in the post-Cold War world, also is expected to announce an overhaul of its 53-year-old defensive military mission.

At Rumsfeld's prompting, NATO will begin to assemble a 21,000-strong rapid reaction strike force, transforming yesteryear's sort of NATO deployment -- heavy tanks protecting Germany's eastern flank from Soviet invasion -- into one that can attack rogue and terrorist threats wherever they pop up.

The point, said Stephen Hadley, Bush's deputy national security adviser, is for NATO to be better prepared than it was just after the Sept. 11 attacks, when an international anti-terror coalition was "assembled on the run, in an emergency" to strike in Afghanistan.

But no one expects the new force to be ready in time for participation in the current Iraqi crisis.

Instead, said NATO Secretary-General George Robertson, it's more a long-term "question of modernization or marginalization."

Lord Robertson promises to deliver the United States a "strong political message" on Iraq, but whether this statement will be self-standing or folded into the summit's official declaration remains under discussion.

William Wallace, a Liberal Democrat peer in Britain's House of Lords and an international relations professor at the London School of Economics, said NATO will happily go along if Bush stays the multilateral "all-for-one, one-for-all" path.

"So long as he does, there will be European forces alongside the United States if it comes to a showdown," Wallace said in an interview. "European governments were actively involved in negotiating the U.N. resolution; they think they share ownership."

Already, the newest NATO members and hopeful future members have quietly told the United States to count on them to help in any war with Saddam. U.S. officials are eyeing the "niche contributions" individual countries can make.

The Czech Republic, which took its place in the alliance just 3 1/2 years ago, has specialists on biological and chemical warfare. Romania's foreign minister said this week that his country, which expects to be invited into NATO next week, offers Washington not only a specially trained mountain battalion, but also critical intelligence on Iraq's electrical networks, power supplies and oil facilities.

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