Acrimony among NATO allies over US military planning for a possible conflict with Iraq has become so pointed that it may change the very nature of the Atlantic alliance, the bedrock of Western security since World War II.
At the least, the political rift is likely to accelerate NATO's pace of structural change. Five years from now the remaining US heavy forces in Germany may be greatly reduced, with some units scattered to new bases in Eastern and Southern Europe, and others returned to North America.
Such redeployments would be the physical manifestation of a new US way of looking at its regional relationships - one in which Romania, say, or Hungary, seems more important.
"How our allies - and adversaries - define themselves in the next 24 months will shape how we view them for two decades to come," says Barry
McCaffrey, the retired four-star Army general who led the left-hook attack across the Euphrates River valley during the 1991 Gulf War, trapping Iraq's elite Republican Guard.
The spark for NATO's latest internal squabble was an effort by the US and some other alliance nations to begin planning for military assistance to Turkey in the event of war with Iraq.
France and Germany blocked that effort on Monday, on grounds that to accept it would be tantamount to accepting the inevitability of war. Turkey - NATO's only Muslim nation - then invoked a treaty clause which requires the alliance to consult if any member feels its security threatened.
At time of writing, the opening of an emergency session to discuss Turkey's request at NATO headquarters in Brussels was delayed, to allow more time for closed-door diplomacy.
The bitter nature of the dispute was surprising, given that it is partly symbolic. Both Germany and France say they have no desire to deny Turkey assistance it genuinely needs.
But such a fight may have become inevitable, say experts, given that NATO lost its original reason for existence with the end of the cold war. Without the discipline imposed by the need to confront a Soviet threat, US decisionmaking on security matters has become increasingly unilateral. Germany and France, meanwhile, have begun to use NATO as a forum to try and check US ambitions.
To confront the US in the UN Security Council, which is partly intended to serve as a big-power debating society, is one thing. To do so within a military alliance whose professed goal is cohesion may be another, especially given that American forces make up the bulk of NATO assets.
"The damage that will come out of this is damage to NATO solidarity," says General McCaffrey.
Of course, the demise of NATO has long seemed possible, given the demise of the Soviet Union. But it just keeps going, and going. In recent years it has served as a useful means of beginning the integration of former Soviet satellites into the west, giving the Czech Republic and others a sense of membership in a world long denied them and a feeling of security as they rebuild civil societies.
In fact, the US has begun to look to these new nations as important part of NATO's military future. At a recent conference in Germany Marine Gen. James Jones, the new US military commander in Europe, sketched out a future in which the remaining 100,000 US troops in Germany are further reduced, and new "lily pad" bases, from which US units could jump to the Middle East or Africa, are scattered throughout NATO's new nations.
That the US would even float such ideas shows it might be planning to match changes in the alliance's political dynamics with changes in flight lines and barracks. It also reflects the fact that in today's world, mobility is as important to US security as massed firepower - and that the global network of bases America created during the cold war is everywhere fading away.
"It's been eroding for over a generation, but with the current controversy concerning Iraq, its erosion is likely to accelerate," says Loren Thompson, chief operating officer and an expert in military strategy at the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va.
The US military has been moving in the direction of dispersal for some years. Yet given the amount of money invested in military infrastructure in Europe, plus bureaucratic inertia, the Pentagon has not exactly transformed its deployed bases with lightning speed. Two of the Army's six heavy divisions remain based in Germany.
"That's a huge fraction of our army for a theater that doesn't plausibly offer any operations to use those forces," says Michael O'Hanlon, a military strategist at the Brookings Institution.
Mr. O'Hanlon believes the dispersal of US troops makes sense. Other experts, however, worry that politics in this case cuts both ways - and that pulling out American men and women from "old Europe" might make European nations even less likely to follow the US lead in Iran and elsewhere.
"I'm a little concerned that if we drop our force presence significantly then the Germans, the British, and others will say, 'Why is an American the commander [of NATO]? Why not one of ours?' " says John Reppert, a retired Army general who is now a military strategist at Harvard University.