- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 2, 2003

PARIS, March 2 (UPI) — It may be too much to expect, in the heat of the diplomatic battle between "Old Europe" and the Bush administration over Iraq, but sometime soon officials on both sides of the Atlantic had better start thinking about ways to repair the damage done to the alliance.

France and Germany have now engaged in direct bilateral clashes with the United States, but also — and this is close to unforgivable — taken their dispute into the heart of NATO. Secretary-general George Robertson was able to patch up a makeshift repair over the Paris-Berlin headline-grabbing attempt to block NATO assets going to Turkey, but the shock to the NATO traditions of consensus and solidarity has been severe.

Less noticed was another subtle French ploy, to block the attempt to make the Afghan peacekeeping mission into a NATO operation. At a time when NATO needs to be able to persuade an increasingly skeptical U.S. Congress of its utility, this was worse than unhelpful. France is not even a member of the NATO's joint military command, so its attempt to ensure that NATO would never go too far "out of area' was as impertinent as it was wrong-headed.

But there are some encouraging signs that wiser heads will soon prevail. Germany, for all its stubborn refusal to back the Bush administration over Iraq, has been singularly helpful elsewhere. It has found ways around its own stern rules against capital punishment to extradite terrorism suspects to the United States. Germany has also gone the extra mile in taking over the leadership of the Afghan peacekeeping force while also keeping its troops in Kosovo and Bosnia. Iraq apart, Berlin remains a useful ally.

Then the "New Europeans" have been eager to please their new NATO allies. Bulgaria and the Czech Republic are sending specialist chemical warfare troops to the Gulf. Hungary is host to the Iraqi exiles being trained for support duties with the U.S. forces. The Poles and Baltic states are readying forces for NATO peacekeeping missions and they have all given staunch diplomatic support to the Anglo-American allies. And NATO as a whole has begun to make up the embarrassing gap in capabilities and equipment by making the investment in airlift with the new fleet of Airbus military transport jets.

Last November's NATO summit in Prague offers another opportunity to revitalize the alliance in ways that that can help overcome this year's crisis. The summit established a new NATO Rapid Response Force, still in the planning process, that should shift the alliance from its Cold War structure of tank armies and heavy artillery to the nimbler, high-tech force of the future.

NATO officials now maintain that getting this right could ensure that "Old Europe" does not misunderstand the inevitable downsizing of U.S. forces in Europe. Already shrunken from its Cold war size of 300,000 troops to just over 100,000, any further reductions will be seen by suspicious Europeans as a downgrading of U.S. interest in NATO, or, worse still, as a punishment for the Franco-German resistance of recent months. To convince them otherwise, the U.S. military and the Bush administration will need to plan the Rapid Response Force with great care.

Thoughtful Europeans will accept that there is little strategic need these days to base U.S. armored divisions in Germany. The Cold War nightmare of tank battles in the Fulda Gap has passed into history. But forces that can move fast to trouble spots, like aviation and logistics units and combat helicopters, airborne troops and light infantry, will be essential. The U.S. Army is already planning to base one of its new Stryker brigades of fast-moving and high-tech troops in Europe.

Despite the usefulness of the existing bases, training grounds and infrastructure in Germany, it is unlikely that many of the new troops will be stationed there, in regions that are now far from NATO's frontiers. Instead, Poland and Romania-Bulgaria will probably be the new homes.

But these U.S. troops have another purpose, to train the old and new NATO forces in the new technologies and tactics that the Pentagon has been developing since the Revolution in Military Affairs began over a decade ago. American complaints that the NATO allies (with the exception of the British) are no longer sufficiently equipped or trained to be able to fight on the same modern battlefield as their U.S. allies are justified. The way to fix this is by training together and sharing technology and rationalizing NATO procurement.

Done right, the coming reorganization of U.S. forces in Europe can go a long way to repairing the diplomatic damage done to the alliance this year, and making the new enlarged NATO as relevant to the security challenges of the future as the magnificently successful old NATO proved to be in the Cold War.

(Walker's World — an in-depth look at the people and events shaping global geopolitics — is published every Sunday and Wednesday.)

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