- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 21, 2002

At the NATO summit today and tomorrow in Prague, the 19 member states will decide whether to take a step toward the alliance's extinction, or whether they will modernize to face today's greatest security threats. The summit was originally planned to celebrate the invitation of new Eastern European members into the alliance, which is predicted to include seven new members. However, it is now unclear whether the United States has the interest, and whether Europe has the capabilities, to keep the alliance militarily strong.

Going into the summit, American and European officials have different views of what constitutes the greatest military threat, and, therefore, have conflicting goals of what NATO's new mission should be. Many of the European nations are still navel-gazing, consumed with stabilizing a continent that is already at peace, but unwilling to protect it and its American ally from new threats that are posed by weapons of mass destruction and terrorism.

"Iraq is not a topic for NATO," a European NATO official told The Washington Times. "Though the out-of-area debate is behind us, the Middle East is not an area of NATO influence. We have never been engaged in the Middle East."

The Bush administration aptly wants to keep the option of NATO influence open there. In a press conference with Czech President Vaclav Havel yesterday, President Bush called for the support of his NATO allies should a military operation in Iraq be required. But Mr. Havel cautioned, "It is always necessary to weigh on the finest scales whether an envisaged action would really be an act helping people against a criminal regime and protecting humankind against weapons of mass destruction, or whether, by any chance, it would be another variation of 'brotherly help,' though more sophisticated than the Soviet version back in 1968."

Yet, the United States has also been hesitant to call on its European allies for military assistance since September 11. Should the United States, which is now setting the bar for military standards within the alliance, lose interest in NATO, the alliance will drift toward military insignificance, causing the political power of NATO to be compromised in its wake.

The bar for the Prague summit's success will not be set by the number of resolutions the alliance comes up with on paper, but by how quickly the following proposals become reality:

• Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's proposed Rapid Reaction Force, which would include around 21,000 soldiers and could respond to attacks from distant enemies within seven to 30 days and sustain itself for up to a month, will likely be supported at the summit. The international rapid response force should not follow in the footsteps of the EU rapid response corps, which has been talked about for years, but is still only a paper force.

• The new member states should not consider their invitation to join NATO the end of their military and political reform process.

• European countries that are prevented by their parliaments and politics from modernizing their militaries through increased defense spending should avoid duplication and spend more wisely in order to give at least 2 percent of their gross domestic product to defense.

• NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson has said that tackling terror is NATO's new mission. A detailed action plan for how each member can develop new capabilities to defend against such threats will be laid out at the summit. Member states should take the first steps toward gaining those capabilities as soon as possible.

There will be many voices around the table in Prague the next two days. The only ones that will be remembered by the time of the next NATO summit, should there be one, will be the ones who put their promises into action.

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