- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 23, 2002

President Bush's visit to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit this week in Prague marked a triumph for a man critics once dubbed a lightweight on foreign policy. This trip Mr. Bush's 11th abroad was a far cry from his first European visit in June 2001. [NATO leaders united Thursday in pledging "full support" for the U.S.-led effort to secure Iraqi compliance with United Nations disarmament resolutions.]

On Mr. Bush's first visit, the Europeans derided the new American president mercilessly. "No one," sniffed the Spanish paper El Pais, "has ever bothered more people in less time."

Most Europeans sang a different tune this week. The president's role in arguing for the most important expansion of NATO's mission in the alliance's 53-year history demonstrated real leadership. No longer is Mr. Bush the foreign-policy neophyte but a tested war leader who understands why NATO must change if it is to remain relevant.

The president is pushing for NATO to make the war on terrorism its top priority and will support the inclusion of several new nations into the NATO alliance, including three countries that were once part of the Soviet Union: Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

NATO was formed in the aftermath of World War II as a bulwark against the expansionist policies of the Soviet Union. Throughout the Cold War, the United States led NATO in keeping Western Europe free. With the demise of the Soviet Union and the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, however, NATO's role has been less clear.

Even as NATO expanded its membership from its original 12 countries to an expected 26 members after this summit, it seemed to lose its bearings as the premier military alliance in the world. Military alliances, after all, are formed to protect members from a perceived common threat. With Soviet imperialism no longer threatening Europe and the world, what need was there for NATO?

September 11 changed that perception, however. If the United States the most powerful nation in the history of the world could be attacked by a group of Muslim fanatics whose weapons were commandeered civilian airplanes loaded with fuel, what countries were safe? Europe, with its large Muslim populations in countries like France, Germany and Spain, seemed even more vulnerable than the United States. Islamic terrorists have replaced the Soviet Union as NATO's raison d'etre. Unless nations band together to fight this unconventional threat, no Western country will be immune from attacks on its citizens.

The central U.S. proposal is for a 21,000-strong NATO rapid response force able to strike on short notice at menacing regimes and terrorists anywhere in the world. Although much of the attention this week was directed toward whether President Bush would be able to garner unconditional NATO support for the anticipated U.S. war against Iraq, the president had another challenge as well. If NATO members, especially the wealthier nations, are to be equal partners in the war against terrorism, their military capabilities must improve. Yet many NATO members' defenses lag far behind, especially against chemical, biological and nuclear threats.

Mr. Bush offered his own example of how "some nations can specialize and provide excellence," citing the Czech Republic's expertise on countering biological and chemical attacks.

Most European nations have not increased their defense spending, even in the wake of this new threat. A new report by a Virginia-based think tank, the U.S. Center for Research and Education on Strategy and Technology, notes that only a handful of European countries will increase military spending in the coming year, while Germany a vital NATO member intends to cut spending. [NATO decided Thursday to lease some 15 U.S. C-17 transport planes, to help fill a gap in its ability to move troops pending the launch of a new European military transport aircraft, officials said.]

For more than 50 years, the United States spent trillions of dollars protecting Western Europe from the Soviet threat through NATO. Now it's Europe's turn to help the United States and itself remain free from the threat posed by Islamic extremists. President Bush made this case to his colleagues in Prague and encouraged them to improve their own military capabilities. In addition to the creation of a new NATO rapid-response force able to respond to threats to members outside alliance territory, the president needs to convince our allies to beef up their military spending.

This is a tall order for the man many of these same leaders once disdained. But President Bush has surpassed European expectations nearly every time he has gone overseas, and it's likely he did so again this time.

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