- The Washington Times - Monday, April 15, 2002

PREDEAL, Romania The promise and peril of NATO's "southern dimension" strategy are on display as Romania's elite alpine military unit goes through its paces on the sheer face of a snowy mountain an hour's drive north of Bucharest.
The unit's commanders explain in fluent English to a visiting American delegation as the troops claw their way up the near-vertical peak, rappel down nimbly, or seem to emerge from invisible crevices to disable an enemy convoy in a mock ambush.
At the end of the flawless exhibition, the troops assemble in front of the visitors to be dismissed. The sergeant barks out an order in Romanian. Half the soldiers turn left. Half turn right.
Considered extreme long shots for NATO membership as recently as a year ago, Romania and Bulgaria have surged to the fore as the 19-nation alliance prepares for a landmark summit in Prague in November. U.S. and NATO officials say the political and geographic attractions of the two candidate countries are obvious, but skeptics say the economic and political headaches bequeathed by decades of communist misrule make an invitation to either candidate a gamble.
"We know we can easily make the strategic argument for our membership in NATO," Romanian Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana said in an interview. "Without a 'southern dimension' to NATO in Europe, the vision of a Europe whole, free and at peace can never be complete.
"We also know," he said, "that nobody is going to let us into NATO just because we sit on a very strategic space."
At the Prague summit, nine central and Eastern European countries will be considered for membership, potentially the largest single round of expansion in the alliance's 53-year history. The applicants are Romania, Bulgaria, the three Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, Slovenia, Slovakia, Albania and Macedonia.
The United States is expected to have a decisive say in who will be accepted, and President Bush has called for a "robust enlargement" for NATO.
"We want the most robust round of enlargement possible," Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told leaders of the NATO hopefuls at a conference last month in Bucharest. "We want to bring in as many countries as are qualified from the Baltic, to the Black Sea, to the Adriatic."
The "southern dimension" argument is not new, but terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon have given it new force, Mr. Armitage said in an interview in Bucharest.
"September 11 has had a riveting effect" on the NATO enlargement debate, Mr. Armitage said. "Certainly a number of our allies among the aspirant countries have stepped up to the plate. There's also much more awareness of the value of the southern flank" in the war on terrorism.
The Bulgarian parliament declared the country a "de facto ally of NATO" in the days after September 11 and agreed to permit a U.S. Air Force base on its territory to provide refueling for planes in the military campaign in Afghanistan.
Both Romania and Bulgaria have supplied troops and equipment for NATO missions in the Balkans in connection with peacekeeping missions in Afghanistan.
"Our two countries have taken the best advantage of a tragic opportunity," said Bulgarian Foreign Minister Solomon Pasi.
The support even may spill over into a potential U.S.-led military strike against Iraq.
Top Romanian and Bulgarian officials say they have received no specific request for logistical aid in any action against Baghdad, but unlike many NATO allies, neither Bucharest nor Sofia rules out providing help if asked.
"If and when Bulgaria's support is needed in further action in the war on terrorism, we have always said that the United States will find us an excellent ally," Mr. Pasi said.
The decision to accept Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary into NATO at the Washington summit in 1999 thrust the alliance deep into the former Soviet zone of influence in Eastern Europe, but also left unresolved some geographical anomalies.
Greece and Turkey remained at the far southern periphery of the alliance, with no land connection to their NATO allies. When Slovakia's bid was rejected in the first enlargement round, Hungary was left as an island in Central Europe surrounded by non-NATO states.
While a serious issue in capitals across the region, the question of which of the nine new applicants might make it has become a popular parlor game at think tanks, where strategists factor in NATO's internal problems, the favored candidates of NATO's leading capitals, Russia's reaction and, finally, the post-September 11 anti-terrorism imperative.
Many handicappers originally predicted a modest expansion at most, with just the safe choices Slovenia and Slovakia winning admission (the so-called "Slo-Slo option"). Many expected the big fight to be over one of the Baltic states, which Russian military leaders had long condemned as an unacceptable provocation.
But in the post-September 11 rapprochement engineered by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Moscow has largely dropped its objections to the Baltic candidates and many expect the Prague summit to invite at least five countries to join Slovenia, Slovakia, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.
Thus, interest has shifted to the southeast.
A major boost to the candidacies of Romania and Bulgaria has been the active support of Turkey and Greece, NATO members whose bilateral disputes over borders and other questions have bedeviled the alliance for decades.
Turkish Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit flew to last month's Bucharest conference to show his support for a big enlargement round, one that would include neighboring Bulgaria and Romania.
"In my view, the Balkans remains a very unsettled, volatile region," Mr. Ecevit said. "Romania and Bulgaria have been forces for stability in the area, and they should be rewarded for that."
A "land bridge" of NATO countries linking Turkey to the European heartland would be valuable strategically to Turkey, Mr. Ecevit said in an interview during his Bucharest stay.
Greek Defense Minister Yannos Papantoniou said his country is a strong backer of the southeastern candidates for the same reason.
"We are strategically cut off from the rest of NATO," he said during a visit to Washington last week. "We have never liked having uncovered space between us and the rest of NATO."
The expansion to the southeast is not without its critics, who argue that both Romania and Bulgaria trail far behind the other NATO hopefuls economically and still are dealing with massive overhauls of their Soviet-era militaries. NATO has set extensive military criteria for applicant countries to meet, but many say a decision to let in either Romania or Bulgaria essentially would be political.
Romania and Bulgaria are "struggling to catch up," the Economist magazine wrote recently.
"They are groping ahead but are still fragile democracies where many people are dirt-poor and resentful, susceptible to populists and by no means instinctively wedded to Western civic values."
Michael Guest, the U.S. ambassador in Bucharest, has warned Romanian officials bluntly that widespread corruption in the economy and government could threaten the country's NATO's hopes if not dealt with forcefully.
Mr. Geoana, the Romanian foreign minister, turns around the critics' argument, saying NATO membership for countries like Romania and Bulgaria would send an electric message throughout Europe's poorest, most unstable region.
"There are still invisible fault lines in Europe, and many people in the Balkans are looking to the NATO decision," he said. "The idea that one of our own can be accepted into NATO would be a fantastic incentive for every country struggling to reform in this part of Europe."
Still, the mood at the Bucharest conference was buoyant, leading some to express concern about unrealistic expectations. Mr. Armitage said one of his messages to the NATO hopefuls was that they could not afford to ease their efforts to reform their militaries, even after Prague.
"I think the argument about our geostrategic value has clearly been heard since September 11," Romanian Prime Minister Adrian Nastase said at a press conference wrapping up the conference. "I interpret a 'robust' enlargement to mean at least seven countries."
But as ambitions for the Prague summit have grown, so have questions over whether enlargement will be one more factor in the ongoing dilution of NATO's mission and confusion over the defensive alliance's purpose.
Jeff Gedmin, director of the Berlin office of the Aspen Institute, a think tank, said, "All the signals now point to a big round of enlargement."
But, he added, "Lurking just beneath the surface are some real existential questions about NATO's mission and role that enlargement will have is only going to make that harder to answer."
Greece's Mr. Papantoniou said a larger membership won't resolve critical questions about NATO's role in the world, its effectiveness as a military force, and the relationship between the United States as the globe's only superpower and its European allies.
He said NATO faces tough decisions over whether to remain a strictly defensive military alliance or a more broadly defined security organization.
"Is there still an identity problem for NATO? Yes, I believe there is," Mr. Papantoniou said.
NATO Secretary-General George Robertson, who met with Mr. Bush at the White House last week, said the Prague summit will face three weighty tasks: deciding on enlargement, defining a new strategic role in the post-September 11 landscape, and institutionalizing a new cooperative relationship with Russia.
While the United States largely has bypassed the formal NATO command structure in the fighting in Afghanistan, Mr. Robertson argues that the alliance remains as relevant as ever as the institutional embodiment of the trans-Atlantic bond.
"NATO will enlarge and be stronger for it," the NATO chief said in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations. He said the alliance can take on new tasks without losing its old focus.
"Enlargement sends a clear message to NATO's critics. We have a new agenda. But we also remain committed to achieving our prior objectives," he said.
But Mr. Gedmin and others have warned that enlargement could exacerbate tensions within the alliance, where European capitals worry about American unilateralism while U.S. strategists warn of a growing capabilities gap from the failure of leading European powers to meet defense budget targets.
"You could see a situation where NATO becomes more relevant politically even as it becomes less relevant militarily," said Mr. Gedmin, "a glorified [Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe] with sidearms."

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