US, Allies Face Off in Dispute Over American Military Role

War claimed more than 40 million lives in Europe during the first half of this century. For much of the rest of the century, massive armies faced off across a divided Europe but never came to blows.

Much of the credit for that relative peace during the cold war goes to the collective might of the Atlantic Alliance, or North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Unlike previous military alliances in Europe, however, NATO included the commitment and the muscle of the United States.

Now, in preparation for the unknown challenges of the 21st century, Europe, the US, and Canada are looking deeply at how to expand NATO to include Eastern Europe, to streamline it, to prevent wars, and to better balance the European and American roles in commanding forces and paying bills.

This week, the 53-member Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe meets in Portugal, where the big concern was expected to be how to ease Russian fears concerning NATO expansion. But now there is a new worry: How to assure some European nations, especially France, that the US will not keep a dominant role in NATO.

Hopes that the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the end of the Soviet Union in 1991 would mark the end of conflict in Europe - or the need for a strong US presence - were dashed by the war in Bosnia. The peace accords that wound down that conflict were hammered out in the US.

Nonetheless, the US has cut its forces in Europe from 385,000 to 106,260 since 1986, with more cuts due in 1997. NATO is consolidating its subcommands and handing over more authority to Europe. But France, which wants to reenter NATO's military structure after leaving it in 1966, argues that the Europeanization of NATO has not gone far enough. It threatens to hold up NATO business until the issue is resolved.

The US has already accepted the principle of letting a European direct any NATO operations that the US did not choose to join. And at a NATO meeting in June, ministers agreed to the concept of a distinct European identity within NATO, and were set to firm up proposals at a meeting in Brussels next week.

But in September, French President Jacques Chirac wrote a personal letter to President Clinton arguing that France would reenter NATO's integrated military command only if the Southern Command, based in the Mediterranean city of Naples, were turned over to a European.

While NATO's other two regional commands are directed by Europeans, the Southern Command has always been held by an American. The Southern Command includes the US Navy's Sixth Fleet, the largest naval armada in the world.

Americans insist that giving up control of the Southern Command is unthinkable, and could severely undermine political support for the alliance in the US.

"It would also send a strong signal to the Mideast. If the US ever handed over control of the Sixth Fleet to a French admiral, we would have endless explanations to make there,"says a senior US military official.

For the US to give up the command of the Sixth Fleet could be interpreted as a lessening of its broader regional security commitments, including the Persian Gulf. In addition, Israel has opposed French efforts to conduct parallel diplomacy in the Mideast because France is viewed as too pro-Palestinian.

THE flap over the Southern Command could put NATO enlargement and reform on hold at least until a NATO summit next year. The US wants to take on East European members as soon as possible, while France insists that the alliance can't be enlarged until it has been Europeanized.

French officials say that France will not yield on this point, citing their own domestic constraints from conservatives who insist that France exact a price for its return to NATO.

The dispute signals a deeper misunderstanding on both sides of the Atlantic about how NATO's European identity should take shape.

For France, who first pushed the idea, a distinct European identity means that Europe could have access to NATO assets, such as military hardware, as well as visible command positions in the alliance. They were surprised to find out how few assets NATO possessed on its own.

"French officials seemed to believe that there was a long list of NATO assets that they could just borrow for their own operations. In fact, NATO assets can be listed on a few pages; while the national assets the US brings to the alliance would take up three New York City phone books," says a NATO official. "France didn't understand this at first, because it has been so long out of NATO's military command structure."

To the US, a distinct European identity means that Europeans will spend more for their own defense and take on more of NATO's costs - not just borrow a C-17 transport aircraft when they need it.

Germany, Italy, and Spain are backing the French demand, albeit without much enthusiasm. But Americans insist the issue is nonnegotiable.

"If France does not back down and decides to stay out of NATO, we'll just have to live with it," says a senior US military official.

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