If this week's NATO summit in Istanbul offers only help in training Iraqi troops, rather than sending actual soldiers, it will be less of a rebuff to Washington than a sign of how hard the Western alliance is finding its new role as global policeman.
Two years after deciding to extend its reach beyond Europe and the North Atlantic, NATO is unable to match its ambitions with effective firepower, alliance leaders acknowledge, calling its credibility into doubt.
"NATO's political clout is directly related to its military competence," NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said recently, complaining that member states are not coming up with the men and machines the alliance needs to do its job.
Nowhere is that clearer than in Afghanistan, the other country topping the summit agenda, where NATO has been struggling for months to assemble a few thousand soldiers to meet its promise to help provide security for September's elections.
"If the elections don't take place because of insecurity, or if they ... are not free and fair, the blame will rest squarely on the heads of the US and its NATO allies," said Sam Zarifi, an official with Human Rights Watch. "The Istanbul summit is NATO's last real chance to show that it takes its responsibilities toward the people of Afghanistan seriously."
At their two-day summit starting Monday, NATO leaders are expected to pledge the alliance's help in training Iraqi soldiers and policemen, as requested last week by interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi.
NATO ambassadors in Brussels "reached an initial agreement to respond positively to the request of the Iraqi interim government for assistance with the training of its security forces," Mr. de Hoop Scheffer said in a statement Saturday.
Even France and Germany, the most outspoken European opponents of the war in Iraq, have signed on to the plan. After meeting US President George Bush in Ireland Saturday, European Union leaders promised they would "support the training and equipping of professional Iraqi security forces, capable of assuming increasing responsibility for the country's security."
It was unclear, however, where the training would be done, or exactly what role NATO would play in it. Germany, for example, has said it will send no troops into Iraq, but seems ready to extend a training program it runs already in nearby Gulf countries.
Washington had initially hoped for a fresh influx of NATO troops to help US soldiers try to keep the peace in Iraq, but lukewarm or hostile reactions to that idea from US allies killed that idea.
Though 16 of NATO's 26 members have sent some soldiers to Iraq, the organization as such plays a limited role there, providing logistical support to a Polish-led division in central Iraq.
"A formal NATO role" in training, even if marginal to the Iraqi government's current security problems, "makes the political point that the allies are together" after the explosive differences over the war in Iraq that tore NATO apart last year, says Dana Allin, an analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
"NATO cannot give more than a political signal because there are no troops to be deployed," adds Burkhard Schmitt, an expert at the EU Center for Security Studies in Paris.
That is partly because Europe's small armies find themselves already overstretched by peacekeeping operations in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Africa, and partly because governments simply have not budgeted for more peacekeeping activities.
The most dramatic illustration of this shortcoming is Afghanistan, where NATO took over management of the 6,500-strong International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kabul last August, promising to augment it and extend its influence beyond the capital.
The alliance has failed to do so, installing only one small team in a city outside Kabul, while the Taliban and warlords reestablish themselves in wide areas of the lawless country. Two female election workers on a voter registration drive were killed Saturday when their bus was blown up, underscoring the uncertainty surrounding the planned vote.
The alliance is expected to announce in Istanbul the creation of five Provincial Reconstruction Teams, and their deployment in the North and West of Afghanistan. This is far less than UN officials and aid workers in Kabul say is needed and comes only after the NATO secretary general has spent months cajoling member governments to come up with troops and equipment - a few thousand men, a few dozen helicopters, and other assorted pieces of military hardware.
"Whenever we enter into a political commitment to undertake an operation, we must have a clear idea beforehand as to what forces we have available to honor this commitment," de Hoop Scheffer said in a recent speech. "I don't mind taking out my begging bowl once in a while. But as a standard operating procedure, this is simply intolerable."
One problem, says NATO spokesman Robert Psczel, is "the legacy of the cold war." Governments are quick to come up with resources, he says, if the threat is a traditional "armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America," as the NATO Treaty's crucial Article 5 puts it. "But for non-Article 5 operations, nations have given what they feel like," he complains.
Since such operations are expected to be NATO's bread and butter in the post-cold war world, member governments have to re-think how they plan and finance them, argues de Hoop Scheffer, who is expected to raise this question at the Istanbul summit.
"There are going to be other interventions, and in principle NATO provides an organized place to generate forces and train them for demanding postwar situations," says Mr. Allin. "Afghanistan is the next test of whether NATO is relevant or important."