- The Washington Times - Monday, March 31, 2008

French commitments to send 1,000 additional soldiers to Afghanistan may be conditional on U.S. support for the European Union’s defense plan that some say will shift power away from U.S. and British interests.

President Bush leaves this morning for a six-day trip to Eastern Europe and Russia, with an itinerary built around a two-day NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania.

NATO’s mission in Afghanistan is at the top of the agenda, but delegates also will discuss the acceptance of three new members: Albania, Croatia and Macedonia.

The 26 NATO members also will vote on whether to allow Georgia and Ukraine to begin the membership process. Russia’s opposition to the move promises to cast a long shadow on the summit.

Mr. Bush will end his trip with a stop in the Russian coastal resort of Sochi, where he will meet with President Vladimir Putin and President-elect Dmitry Medvedev to discuss missile defense and other issues.

Dominating the NATO debate will be the call for some European nations to play a larger role in Afghanistan.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has said he is ready to deploy more troops to areas of heavy fighting in Afghanistan and to rejoin NATO’s integrated military command structure, but he also has suggested that he wants U.S. backing for an independent EU defense structure within NATO.

Some U.S. and British conservatives say such an arrangement could render NATO useless and irrelevant and open the way for the European Union to become the dominant political and military force.

“A rival command structure within NATO could well destroy the alliance in the coming years. It would also serve to weaken the influence of Washington and London, giving more power to Brussels, Paris and Berlin, creating a rival core of power within the alliance,” said Nile Gardiner, an analyst on British-U.S. relations at the Heritage Foundation.

“The EU has very clear ambitions to evolve as a federal super state with a unified foreign and defense policy, so French strategists clearly see the EU as a vehicle for advancing France’s power on the world stage,” he said.

British Conservative Party member Liam Fox, the shadow defense secretary, has criticized “reshaping our defense alliances by stealth away from NATO and towards the EU” through the Lisbon Treaty signed by member states in December.

“We should welcome France into the integrated command structure but not with an EU pillar of NATO as a quid pro quo,” Mr. Fox said in a speech to Parliament in February.

The White House said France has not asked for reciprocity for its move from 1,600 to 2,600 troops in Afghanistan, which has received backlash among the French populace.

“The French commitment to Afghanistan is a recognition that all the NATO allies must remain committed to the fight there if we are going to be successful,” said White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe.

Mr. Gardiner scoffed at the idea of French “charity.”

“The Bush administration is very keen to get France more on board in Afghanistan, and there is a danger that the administration will cave in on the European Union defense issue,” he said.

Simon Serfaty, a Europe analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said, “It’s not a matter of surpassing [NATO]. It’s a matter of having a European security and defense policy that acts together with NATO that can act whenever NATO is not acting.

“For the Europeans to have influence, and for the U.S. to find the Europeans to be a capable partner, they need to act together.”

Mr. Bush and first lady Laura Bush will begin their trip in Ukraine, and then spend a day in Bucharest before the NATO conference begins.

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