- The Washington Times - Friday, November 22, 2002

PRAGUE NATO invited seven former communist countries to become members yesterday, marking its largest expansion to date, and turned its gaze even farther eastward to potential allies in the Caucasus and Central Asia.
At a two-day summit in Prague, the alliance also adopted a U.S. proposal to create an "advanced and flexible" response force of 20,000 troops, capable of deployment within one month, which will be "ready to move quickly to wherever needed."
The NATO leaders also endorsed new initiatives to enhance the alliance's capabilities against nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, and handing the Bush administration broad success on its complete agenda agreed to "examine options" for building a missile-defense shield.
The changes are meant to transform NATO from a Cold War organization arrayed against the Soviet Union into one that can successfully face new threats posed by terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, alliance officials said.
Although widely expected, the membership invitations to Bulgaria, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia produced an obvious sense of excitement and celebration. Leaders of both current and future members scrambled for words to describe the event's significance.
"This is a crucially important decision where consensus among allies has emerged gradually over the last few months," said NATO Secretary-General George Robertson. "We can, therefore, say with complete confidence that this round of enlargement will maintain and increase NATO's strength, cohesion and vitality."
President Bush, in a brief remark, said yesterday's decision "reaffirms our commitment to freedom" and to a Europe whole, free and at peace. "By welcoming seven members, we will not only add to our military capabilities, we will refresh the spirit of this great democratic alliance," he said.
French President Jacques Chirac took the opportunity to remind his colleagues that France had supported membership for Bulgaria, Romania and Slovenia during the previous round of expansion in 1997, when Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic were invited to join. "The vision of our continent's future, which was unable to take root at the time," he said, alluding to U.S. objections at that time, "is now shared by all."
The summit's host, Czech President Vaclav Havel, said the admission of nearly all former Soviet satellites in Central and Eastern Europe is a "clear signal" that "the era when countries were divided by force into spheres of influence, or when the strong were used to subjugate the weaker, has come to an end once and for all."
In a joint declaration, alliance leaders said they were aiming at signing accession protocols with the newly invited nations by the end of March and admitting them as full members in May 2004.
While buoyed by their diplomatic victory, the invitees still must convince the parliaments of the 19 current NATO members that they are ready to fulfill all responsibilities under the common-defense Article 5.
"The invitation is a challenge for us to continue the reform of our armed forces," said Slovak President Rudolf Schuster. "We are capable and ready to assist."
While for the first time absorbing countries that were once parts of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, the alliance declared that NATO's door is open to still more members.
It specifically encouraged nations in the "strategically important region of the Caucasus and Central Asia to take advantage" of such "practical mechanisms" as the newly introduced Individual Partnership Action Plans.
These documents, which yesterday's declaration called a "comprehensive, tailored and differential approach to the partnership," are modeled after the Membership Action Plans that mapped the path to NATO invitations for yesterday's successful candidates.
"These countries were vital to our successful campaign in Afghanistan," Nicholas Burns, the U.S. ambassador to the alliance, said in a speech in Berlin three weeks ago.
"As NATO seeks in the future to respond to the threat of terrorism and to instability in the arc of countries ranging from North Africa to the Middle East to South Asia, we need the active support of Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan, of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgystan to protect us and them from the many dangers we all now confront."
Mr. Burns said that as NATO "devoted itself to stabilizing Central Europe and the Balkans in the 1990s, we must now look east in the next decade to extend our hand in partnership to each of these countries as we seek peace and stability for them and for ourselves."
As NATO leaders yesterday moved to ensure that the alliance begins adapting to face the new threats of the post-Cold War world, their first order of business was to endorse the response-force proposal, first presented by the United States to the NATO defense ministers in late September.
The new force will be a "catalyst for focusing and promoting improvements in the alliance's military capabilities," the leaders said. It will have a limited capability by October 2004 and will be fully operational no later than October 2006.
In order to "streamline" NATO's command arrangements, the alliance decided to have a "strategic command for transformation" based in the United States in addition to its existing command for operations at the NATO headquarters in Brussels.
Under pressure from Washington, its European allies made concrete commitments to improve their military capabilities, which are now years behind those of the United States. Even though officials did not specify what exactly each country had promised, they said the pledges were in such areas as strategic air and sea lift, precision-guided munitions, air-to-air refueling, and special forces.
"We will be judged on results, not the commitments we make today," said British Prime Minister Tony Blair. "When we next meet, we must be able to point to concrete achievements."

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