PRAGUE - As expected, there were no surprises at the NATO summit that concluded this weekend in the capital of the Czech Republic. All the decisions had been made in advance. It was known in advance that seven new nations would be invited to join NATO in 2004, that the organization's statements about the Iraqi crisis would be cautious and nonbinding, and that everyone would praise democracy and talk about the need to fight terror. Yet the decision to bring in these seven new members clearly reflects the end of NATO as a military organization and its transformation into a political club. After all, what military contribution can Slovenia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria make to wars waged or planned by the United States? Their inclusion will add nothing to NATO's military might; at best, they will send units with niche specialities to the battlefield. Perhaps this is why NATO spokesmen repeatedly stressed the Czech Republic's contribution to the organization - its ability to send units that specialize in detecting and identifying noxious chemicals.
The war in Afghanistan already made it clear that the era of NATO as a military alliance has ended. The organization has split into two unequal parts - the United States and all the rest. The U.S. waged the war in Afghanistan by itself, with important, but largely symbolic, help from Britain, Canada and Australia. This war once again made it clear that the gap between the American army and those of other NATO members - with respect to technology, combat systems and the ability to deploy forces at a distance - is so large that the U.S. has no need of help from its allies in order to wage its wars. The inclusion of the Baltic states only increases this gap. And to this must be added the unilateralist world view of the Bush administration, which avoids seeking help from its allies lest they limit its maneuvering room.
Thus when Iraq came up on the Prague summit's agenda, the only declaration that the heads of NATO could unite behind was extremely vague. The declaration did call on Iraq to comply "fully and immediately" with UN Security Council Resolution 1441, but it then settled for the bland statement that NATO countries "stand united in their commitment to take effective action to assist and support the efforts of the UN to ensure full and immediate compliance by Iraq" with this resolution. What actions NATO members will take to fulfill this pledge was never specified. However, it was clear to all the summit participants that in the end, countries will join the American war on Iraq on a state-to-state basis in response to invitations from the Bush administration.
Almost as if to fulfill a ritual obligation, the member countries did agree to set up a rapid reaction force numbering 20,000 soldiers. This will be competition for the rapid reaction force that the European Union has decided to build, but its establishment will not substantively alter the fact that the U.S. is the only military power capable of operating around the globe. The leaders of the 19 NATO countries also spoke of the need to improve the aerial refueling capabilities of member states' armies, to upgrade command and control systems and to equip themselves with defenses against chemical and biological weapons, and they even made vague statements about the need for member states to increase their defense budgets. But no one in Europe considers the threats faced by the continent to be very serious. What remains is the terrorist threat - the war on which is also being led by the U.S. - and the deployment of forces on peacekeeping missions. This is not enough to justify a military alliance - but it is enough to permit the organization to continue to exist and even to expand its ranks.
Israel was not on the summit's agenda, though it was present indirectly. Since 1994, there has been a "Mediterranean dialogue" between NATO and seven countries in this region, which is aimed at expanding cooperation with NATO in the fields of defense, civilian disaster relief and science. The problem is that every action must be agreed upon by all the participants - and a glance at the list, which includes Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Mauritania, makes it clear that the group's ability to reach any agreement on military cooperation with NATO is therefore limited.
Though no one was talking about this region in the corridors of the Prague convention center, it is nevertheless worth giving some thought to an interesting idea raised by Professor Michael McFaul of Stanford University in an op-ed article that appeared in The New York Times on Sunday. Expanding NATO to the Middle East, he argued, could bring peace to this region, just as it did in Europe. "As the cliche goes, NATO brought peace to a war-torn continent by keeping the Americans in, the Germans down and the Russians out," he wrote - and in the same way, expanding NATO to the Middle East "could keep the Americans in, dictators down and terrorists out." And while this idea might seem far-fetched, he continued, "so was the idea half a century ago that a Western alliance in a ruined Europe would survive into the 21st century - and expand into the former Soviet Union." This is certainly food for thought for those who are planning policy for the post-intifada era.
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