US Commander Speaks on New Role For NATO on Its Southern Flank

FROM a picturesque hillside office complex overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, NATO's southern command is trying to turn the world's most powerful killing machine into a group of even-handed peacekeepers and sophisticated diplomats.

From this Italian city, NATO not only supports troubled United Nations operations in Bosnia-Herzegovina, but also is leading a controversial effort to develop a dialogue with Islamic nations in northern Africa.

Observers say whether NATO succeeds or fails in these two complex missions may determine whether the alliance establishes a new role or becomes a cold-war relic.

So far, says NATO's southern commander, United States Adm. Leighton Smith, both operations are a success, but he warns that lessons learned by his command must be considered by Western leaders.

''You don't ever want to design a system where there is a dual key again,'' says Admiral Smith, in a Monitor interview. ''That would be the first thing I would recommend against in a future military operation.''

Smith cites a ''dual key'' command system in Bosnia that requires both UN and NATO commanders to approve military action by NATO forces. A lack of clear political will in the West has led to a series of disputes over how much force should be used in Bosnia that has at times soured relations between the two bodies.

UN versus NATO

At various points in a nearly two-year effort by NATO to keep Bosnia's warring parties from using fighter planes, the UN has blocked NATO from destroying surface-to-air missile sites that threatened NATO planes and briefly halted all NATO flights over Bosnia. Critics say NATO'S credibility has been hurt as a result.

And NATO once refused to turn over its daily flight plans to the UN because of fears that Lt. Gen. Michael Rose, the UN commander in Bosnia until December, was going to turn the plans over to Bosnian Serbs.

Smith and senior NATO officials also spent the last two weeks pressuring the UN to back down from allegations that NATO was covering up secret arms deliveries to the Bosnian government.

''Have there been some difficulties? Absolutely, no question about it,'' Smith says. ''They have been born out of different expectations.... We have two different political bodies giving us guidance.''

On his other ''new front,'' that of establishing contacts with Islamic countries on Europe's south, Smith says his command now has an area of interest that includes 39 countries, but is facing budget cuts.

''We are very, very busy trying to prioritize our resources so we can execute a strategy of engagement [in North Africa],'' he says. ''I think it's a good idea, and I'm anxious to commence.''

France and other NATO members are worried that a possible Islamic fundamentalist state -- armed with long-range missiles that could target Europe -- may emerge in an increasingly unstable North Africa.

NATO cites Islamic threat

Last month, NATO Secretary-General Willie Claes touched off a controversy by saying that Islamic fundamentalism was the greatest single threat to Europe since communism. Offended Muslim nations attacked Mr. Claes and called the NATO effort an attempt by the West to dominate the Middle East.

Smith says successful operations, such as NATO's effort to enforce an arms embargo on former Yugoslavia, are largely being ignored by critics and the news media. He says NATO's well-honed multinational command structure allowed its enforcement of a naval blockade barring weapons from entering the former Yugoslavia to operate smoothly amid bitter US-European infighting.

''[The naval embargo] is a little-known ... but very successful operation that is a classic way of using NATO forces, NATO equipment, and NATO training and applying them to a peace support operation,'' Smith says. ''NATO's credibility has not somehow been besmirched by these operations.''

Staffers admit some ''mixed feelings'' still exist about NATO's new role, and complain of bureaucrats in NATO's Brussels headquarters being resistant to change. But the dramatic changes already carried out here, for better or worse, may be NATO's best hope for survival and in some ways irreversible.

''We have opened up the door,'' says one UN staffer. ''Whatever happens in the future, we've demonstrated that NATO can be used in new ways.''

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