ISTANBUL - On Sunday, shortly before President George Bush arrived, Turkey's military orchestra was rehearsing American tunes, especially "Speedy Gonzales." In the refrain of this song, Mr. Gonzales is politely requested to come home - a softer, more delicate, more oblique request than the angry slogans that once sent the Yankee home as persona non grata.
The display window of the NATO summit in Istanbul is important to the Turks. For them, it is an opportunity to emphasize their unique fusion of Asia and Europe, East and West, Islam and secularism, democracy and the military. Over the past decade, with the lapsing of the Soviet threat, Turkey's importance to the NATO alliance has diminished. And over the past year, ever since the Turks - and the Saudis - let the Americans down during their time of trouble in Iraq, Turkey has watched the practical Americans hastening to seek less fickle alternatives in central Asia, the Caucasus and even on the Black Sea coast (Bulgaria).
To ensure that the demonstrators who had promised to embitter Bush's stay in the city would not embarrass his hosts in front of the many cameras that flocked to the conference, the Turkish authorities fenced off the summit area with police roadblocks, some made of metal and some of flesh and blood. Every four meters there were another two policemen. This is also the image of old military Europe, extravagant in its armored forces, chained to the vicinity of its bases, full of uniformed soldiers whose effectiveness as a fighting force is doubtful. In comparison to lean, mobile forces, well-equipped with information and effective precision weaponry, the almost 2.4 million soldiers that today belong to the NATO armies are similar to the Turkish currency - almost 1.5 million lira to the dollar.
In Hebrew, it is possible to "translate" the initials that make up the acronym NATO into the alliance's principal occupation over the last three years, and perhaps also in the 30 years to come: "against terrorist and extremist Islam" (neged Islam terroristi v'kina'i). NATO's most important decision in the wake of September 11, 2001, was to stop waiting at home, in Europe, until an external threat materialized and instead to seize the initiative in the arena where the terrorism originated: Afghanistan, Iraq and, later on, perhaps also Iran, Syria and Lebanon.
This decision was sparked by NATO's desire to survive: Unless it participated in the present period's principal activity, there was no justification for continuing to maintain a framework whose original reason for existence, the Soviet threat, had disappeared. Translating this desire into operations was more complicated, however, both because NATO decisions must be made unanimously (hitherto, that required the consent of 19 members, but from now on, it will require the consent of 26), and because additional players had joined the Middle East game - first and foremost, the European Union, which is also not a single-voiced entity, either in terms of the nations that comprise it or in terms of the ambitions of its leaders.
At a meeting of the Quartet in New York this past April, which was supposed to express support for Ariel Sharon's plan to remove the Israel Defense Forces and the settlements from Gaza, three of the Quartet's four members (the U.S., Russia and the UN) sent a single representative apiece. But the EU could not get by with less than three: the Irish rotating president, the Spanish security commissioner and the British external commissioner. The EU has a "rapid reaction force," while NATO has a "rapid response force" - both ready to be deployed immediately to fight terrorism, weapons of mass destruction or smuggling (a category that, in time, is also liable to include the Philadelphi Road in Gaza).
To disentangle itself from this thicket, NATO agreed on a compromise: It would be in the middle, between Washington and the EU. In the Balkans, in Afghanistan and now also in Iraq, a new type of Western military activity has developed - a phased one: The Americans fight, the NATO armies "stabilize" and the EU forces handle policing.
Israelis and Palestinians curious to know whether - and when - NATO is going to send a brigade to stabilize them in Gaza, will receive a partial answer in today's announcement from Istanbul: Not yet. After a decade of standing with its hand on the doorknob, NATO is inserting a foot through the door, in the form of upgrading its relations with the Mediterranean countries from dialogue to partnership. However, its body is still outside, in large part due to Egyptian opposition. The songs are new, the rhythms are lively - but NATO is not Speedy.
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