- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 11, 2003

The bitter impasse over Iraq has exposed a deep identity crisis within NATO, which is still searching for a useful role to play more than a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
NATO's leading powers remain deadlocked in a public dispute over war with Iraq, with U.S. Ambassador to NATO Nicholas Burns saying the decision by France, Germany and Belgium to oppose defensive aid to Iraqi neighbor and fellow NATO member Turkey has created a "crisis of confidence" in the 19-nation alliance.
Robert Hunter, who was ambassador to NATO for five years under President Clinton, said the alliance had "successfully wrapped up the 20th century," absorbing a string of new Central European democracies and forging a cooperative relationship with Russia.
"But with the agenda of the 21st century, when you move beyond Europe into questions like the Middle East, terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, figuring out NATO's role becomes much more complicated," he said.
NATO endured angry internal debates in the decades after its founding in 1949, but the Cold War threat from the Soviet Red Army in the end prevented such divisions from becoming permanent.
Mr. Hunter, who took part in backroom NATO debates over military action in Bosnia in the mid-1990s, said the public fallout over Iraq in recent days "is the worst split I've ever seen in NATO."
But, he added, "It remains in everybody's self-interest to preserve NATO. For this not to be worked out, a lot of people would have to be incredibly stupid and self-destructive for a long time."
Sean Kay is chairman of the international studies program at Ohio Wesleyan University and has worked with both the State and Defense departments on NATO issues.
He said NATO's traditional reliance on consensus has left Pentagon planners increasingly frustrated, even as European and American public opinion continues to diverge on Iraq and other foreign policy issues. The decision-making gears will turn even more slowly, he said, when NATO admits seven new members in the next few years.
The United States and its leading European allies "are two ships passing in the night," Mr. Kay said. "They've been talking past each other for some time now."
Internal disputes have been common in NATO's history. What is unusual here is that the fight has broken out into the open, with France, Belgium and Germany formally blocking a U.S. request to begin defensive planning in NATO for Turkey.
Like many analysts, Mr. Kay said he expects NATO to eventually paper over the Turkish dispute. Belgian and German officials yesterday stressed they did not oppose Turkey's request, but objected to any hint of war planning so long as diplomatic efforts through the United Nations are under way.
Most analysts say Turkey is an innocent bystander in the current dispute. The only Muslim-majority country in NATO, Turkey has had a rocky relationship with a number of European countries over issues such as immigration and Turkey's delayed bid to join the European Union.
The holdouts "did not veto the protection of Turkey," Turkish Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis told reporters in Ankara yesterday. "These countries have problems with the timing."
But the spectacle of NATO countries clashing publicly among themselves at a time when Washington has demanded a united front against Baghdad won't be lost on U.S. military planners, Mr. Kay predicted.
NATO's effectiveness "is decayed to the point that it is politically unmanageable, militarily ineffective, and strategically irrelevant," he said.
NATO members complained when the Bush administration bypassed the alliance in preparing the campaign against Afghanistan in 2001. Many in Europe now fear that the United States may turn decisively from NATO given the frustrations over the past few weeks.
Vetoing aid to Turkey "can do enormous damage to the Americans' confidence in the alliance," Danish Defense Minister Svend Aage Jensby said in a newspaper interview. "Now more than ever, it is important for the Americans that we show solidarity."

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