NATO leaders, meeting in Bucharest, Romania, are prepared to endorse the American plan for building a missile defense shield in eastern Europe, according to a senior U.S. official:
The final summit statement would "recognize the substantive contribution to the protection of the allies" from the missile defense system to be deployed in the Czech Republic and Poland, the official told reporters.
According to the AP's Matthew Lee, the alliance plans to issue a communique acknowledging the danger Europe faces from missile attack by rogue states, and the protection offered by the U.S.-built system:
[The communique] will state that "ballistic missile proliferation poses an increasing threat to allied forces, territory and populations." It will also recognize the protective contribution of the U.S.-led system, according to senior American officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, ahead of the communique's release.
The statement calls on all NATO members to explore ways in which the planned U.S. project can be linked to future missile defense shields elsewhere. It says leaders should come up with recommendations to be considered at their neet meeting in 2009, the officials said.
Significantly, the document also calls on Russia to drop its objections to the system and accept U.S. and NATO offers to cooperate on building it., the officials reported.
Today's statement represents a significant victory for President Bush and the United States, who have pushed hard for European acceptance of the missile defense system, despite strong protests from Russia. Moscow has used a variety of tactics--including threats of a "new arms race"--to dissuade NATO from moving forward with the deployment.
The defensive system received a further boost on the sidelines of the summit, when Czech officials announced they have concluded negotiations with the U.S. on the basing of a missile tracking radar, which will be located in their country. A formal agreement on that element of the defensive shield will reportedly be signed in May. American officials are still negotiating with Poland, which will host the system's interceptor missiles.
While winning critical support for missile defense, Mr. Bush suffered a setback on the key issue of enlarging NATO. Alliance leaders rejected a U.S. plan to expand their organization, by putting Ukraine and Georgia on the path to membership. They also declined to offer full membership to Macedonia.
Russia is also against NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine, viewing it as an encroachment into its traditional sphere on influence. But. U.S. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley said the President will not drop plans for expanding the alliance, and will offer a new proposal before he leaves office next year. Mr. Bush affirmed those plans in remarks made earlier in the day:
"NATO's door must remain open to other nations in Europe that share our love for liberty and demonstrate a commitment to reform and seek to strengthen their ties with the trans-Atlantic community," Bush said during an alliance meeting. "We must give other nations seeking membership a fair hearing."
Alliance support for missile defense represents one of the most significant military (and security) victories of Mr. Bush's second term. Moscow pulled out all the stops in trying to block the deployment, making many European countries nervous. But the U.S. was able to allay those fears, gaining a critical endorsement from its most important allies.
With today's communique from Bucharest--and the apparent conclusion of the Czech radar basing agreement--the focus now shifts to Poland and talks on those interceptor missiles. Russia will almost certainly turn up the heat on Warsaw, offering a combination of carrots and sticks to reject the missile deployment plan. Those efforts will almost certainly fail; earlier this month, the U.S. promised to modernize Poland's military, providing an important (and timely) incentive for Warsaw to accept the interceptor missiles.
Secretary of State Condolezza Rice described today's missile communique as a "breakthrough agreement" for NATO. Still, we've got to wonder about the level of European calculation in today's endorsement. With Mr. Bush leaving office in nine months, European leaders are quite aware that the missile shield may be scrapped by an incoming Democratic administration. Against that backdrop, some NATO leaders may believe there was little risk in supporting the BMD statement, believing the project may not survive Bush's tenure in office.
On the other hand, the President's coup in Bucharest will make it more difficult for a Clinton or Obama administration to scuttle the proposal. NATO's endorsement provides a powerful rationale for seeing the project through, and it's clear that Mr. Bush wants to the missile shield on the path to deployment before he leaves the White House.
By comparison, efforts to advance the alliance's eastward expansion may prove more difficult. Today's rejection of membership for Ukraine and Georgia suggest there are limits on how far some NATO members are willing to push Russia. Unfortunately, that hesitation is likely to embolden Russia, which will continue its campaign of threats and economic sanctions against both countries.