NATO looks to retool itself

Yesterday, the US proposed creating a rapid-reaction force for Europe.

At a meeting of NATO defense ministers Tuesday in Warsaw, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld politely briefed his NATO partners about Washington's plans for Iraq. He even took one or two of them aside to ask for specific help should things come to war.

But quite conspicuously, he did not ask the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, America's premier military alliance, to play any role at all in what is shaping up as the most ambitious United States military operation for more than a decade. "It hasn't crossed my mind," Mr. Rumsfeld told reporters.

The reasons are not hard to find. NATO works by consensus, and one leading member, Germany, is adamantly opposed to war in Iraq, with or without United Nations backing. Other NATO countries, too, have reservations about US intentions that would pose obstacles to joint planning, possibly preventing Washington from having its way.

At the same time, the US has no need of the alliance, from a military standpoint, to carry out an invasion of Iraq in pursuit of its goal of replacing President Saddam Hussein. As the Pentagon proved by waging the war in Afghanistan almost singlehandedly, US generals prefer to rely on their own troops and their own weapons systems.

This leaves NATO with a dilemma, as it seeks a new role in a world where the Soviet Union is no longer a threat to Western Europe.

NATO Secretary-General George Robertson, opening the two-day meeting in Warsaw, urged the alliance to transform itself to be able to play a "pivotal part" in the war against terrorism.

Rumsfeld presented the meeting with a plan for NATO to create a rapid reaction force, comprised of 20,000 US, Canadian, and European troops, that could deploy within days to crisis points outside Europe.

That force, which officials say could be operational within two years, would put flesh on the bones of a decision by NATO defense ministers last June to create a rapid reaction force.

That decision radically altered NATO's raison d'être, ending years of debate as to whether the alliance should extend its reach beyond its borders. Washington's view – that if it did not, it would become irrelevant – prevailed. "Given the present international situation, the alliance should be capable of conducting military operations other than the defense of allied territories," Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski said Monday evening.

Making these kinds of changes will cost money, though, and for most of the past decade, military budgets have been shrinking. The gap between US capabilities and those of its allies has been growing alarmingly, say alliance officials. "Accusations about US unilateralism will become a self-fulfilling prophecy unless we ensure that Europe can make a more equal contribution to combined operations," Lord Robertson said earlier this month.

For the first time in nearly a decade, there are now signs that European governments agree. German defense spending is due to rise next year by a little more than three per cent after falling every year but two since 1991. French President Jacques Chirac has pledged that after five years of falling or stagnating defense budgets, next year's figures – to be announced Wednesday – will see an increase. British defense spending, which had fallen from 3 percent of its gross domestic product in 1995 to 2.5 percent by 1999, increased this year by 4.4 percent and is expected to remain at current levels for the next two years.

Reflecting this new commitment, NATO countries are expected to commit themselves at a November summit to buy precision-guided missiles, heavy transport planes, and defenses against chemical and biological weapons.

Britain is the only NATO country so far to have shown any willingness to send forces to fight alongside US troops in Iraq. President Chirac this week spoke out strongly against any unilateral US action, trying at a European Union summit meeting with Asian leaders on Monday to have a motion passed condemning a unilateral attack. The effort was defeated by Italy and Spain, two other NATO allies. But the meeting did issue a statement calling for UN backing for any military action.

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