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U.S., Europe gulf opens at NATO summit

European objections keep Georgia, Ukraine off membership track, but US plans for missile-defense program in Europe gets an endorsement.

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One German diplomat said the White House had not decided even in January its position on Ukraine, and that the alliance had not done its "homework" on the thorny problem of inviting a sensitive new member so close to Russia's heartland.

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"The Americans suddenly crashed the gears on Ukraine and NATO," says François Heisbourg, head of the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research. "They went from neutral to fourth gear in one shot, and the noise was pretty awful. Why Bush and his advisers thought they could pull this off is a mystery to me."

But the summit final press statement, given by NATO chief Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, states that the allies "agree today that these countries [Ukraine and Georgia] will become members of NATO," and that their cases will be reviewed at a 2008 meeting of foreign ministers.

Such final language keeps the door open to NATO enlargement and will probably be discussed between President Bush and Putin when they meet this weekend in Sochi.

Thursday, Mr. de Hoop Scheffer announced that Croatia and Albania were accepted as new NATO members and that Bosnia and Montenegro would be invited to join. NATO acceptance of the two Balkan states is part of an effort to bring shared values and Western rule of law to an area that has succumbed to what de Hoop Scheffer called "sullen nationalism."

The decisions are "far reaching," said de Hoop Scheffer in announcing them from an ornate theater in the cavernous palace built by Nicolae Ceausescu, Romania's last dictator. "They will substantially change the alliance and its Euro-Atlantic relations."

Macedonia, which has worked for 15 years to join NATO, was not accepted – a result of its dispute with Greece involving the name "Republic of Macedonia," which Greece claims represents a territorial threat.

Macedonia will be able to join as soon as the name issue is resolved at the United Nations, NATO officials stated. The question is a volatile one and could destabilize the small state, experts say.

A stress by European states to rebalance military and political aid to Afghanistan and to shift toward further training Afghan forces is considered by some analysts to be a major innovation in the 2008 summit.