The New York Times Steven Enlarger
Steven Lee Myers
April 3, 2008
BUCHAREST, Romania — President Bush threw the NATO summit meeting here off-script on Wednesday by lobbying hard to extend membership to Ukraine and Georgia, but he failed to rally support for the move among key allies.
Mr. Bush’s position — that Ukraine and Georgia should be welcomed into a Membership Action Plan, or MAP, that prepares nations for NATO membership — directly contradicted German and French government positions stated earlier this week. It also risked upsetting efforts to get Russia to soften its opposition to positioning a missile defense array in Eastern Europe.
Mr. Bush failed to win over a consensus of NATO members in a debate at a dinner of NATO leaders, a senior German official said Wednesday night, with at least seven countries lined up against him.
A senior American official, briefing reporters, said that no final decisions had been made at the dinner, and that all parties agreed on the importance of keeping the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s door open to Ukraine and Georgia.
Mr. Bush, entering his last NATO summit meeting as president, was described by the official as wanting to “lay down a marker” for his legacy and not wanting to “lose faith” with the Ukrainian and Georgian peoples and the other former Soviet republics. As Mr. Bush did more often early in his presidency, he expressed his views candidly despite warnings from allies that he was complicating efforts to find diplomatic solutions.
Normally, summit meetings like this are prescripted, but Mr. Bush’s comments added some extra interest while annoying Germany and France, which had said they would block the invitation to Ukraine and Georgia.
At the dinner on Wednesday, the German and French position was supported by Italy, Hungary and the Benelux countries, a senior German official said. Mr. Bush was said to have accepted that his position was not going to prevail, and officials were asked to find some construction overnight that would encourage Ukraine and Georgia without asking them to enter a membership plan now.
The dinner meeting ran two hours over schedule. An hour and a half after it was supposed to end, Laura Bush, the first lady, left on her own, as did other spouses.
“The debate was mostly among Europeans,” the senior administration official said, acknowledging that several allies had balked at President Bush’s stance. “It was quite split, but it was split in a good way.”
NATO members did appear to make progress on other issues on their agenda. They are set on inviting Croatia and Albania to join the alliance, while working to overcome Greek objections to extending membership to Macedonia, European and American officials said.
France also offered to send a battalion of troops to eastern Afghanistan, a move that could free American forces to move south, where NATO troops are struggling to suppress the Taliban-led insurgency.
On Wednesday morning, Mr. Bush gave a rousing speech in which he stated his positions and declared that “the terrorist threat is real, it is deadly and defeating this enemy is the top priority of NATO,” which is not the defined goal of every member of this collective security alliance.
Referring to democratic revolutions in both Ukraine and Georgia, he said: “Welcoming them into the Membership Action Plan would send a signal to their citizens that if they continue on the path to democracy and reform they will be welcomed into the institutions of Europe. It would send a signal throughout the region” — read Russia — “that these two nations are, and will remain, sovereign and independent states.”
Some German officials described the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, as upset and even angry on Wednesday. She and Mr. Bush have talked repeatedly about the issue in the past two months. Mrs. Merkel had thought that a compromise was in the works, the officials said, with Washington supporting a warm statement welcoming the interest of Ukraine and Georgia in NATO and encouraging them to work toward entering the membership plan program.
Germany and France have said they believe that since neither Ukraine nor Georgia is stable enough to enter the program now, a membership plan would be an unnecessary offense to Russia, which firmly opposes the move. In fact, senior diplomats here said, the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin, has threatened to cancel his planned first-ever visit to the NATO meeting on Friday if the two former Soviet states enter the program for eventual membership.
Mrs. Merkel visited Moscow on March 8 and met Mr. Putin and his successor, Dmitri A. Medvedev. She told them that Russia would not be allowed a veto over NATO membership. But a senior German diplomat, Wolfgang Ischinger, said that offering membership to a divided Ukraine could destabilize the new government there, and that not enough diplomacy had taken place beforehand with Russia.
Mr. Ischinger, Germany’s ambassador to London, noted that after the NATO summit meeting Mr. Bush and the two Russians would meet in Sochi, a Russian resort on the Black Sea. He said, “It’s the absence of this discussion that makes me wonder if NATO has done enough of its homework at this point on this front.”
The newer members of NATO from the old Eastern Europe support the American position. Romanian, Estonian and Latvian leaders emphasized that the Membership Action Plan program involved difficult requirements for NATO membership, including internal political and military reforms and guarantees of civil liberties, and could take a decade to fulfill.
“MAP is more of a big stick than a big carrot,” said the Estonian president, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, at a conference here of the German Marshall Fund. “It forces nations to reform even when they don’t want to do it.”
The Latvian president, Valdis Zatlers, warned that postponing entry to the Membership Action Plan program delayed crucial internal debates. “No action plan, no action,” he said. “If we delay, we postpone the inevitable. We have to give MAP.”
Ronald D. Asmus, who was a crucial figure in the Clinton administration’s enlargement of NATO and now runs the German Marshall Fund’s Brussels office, said, “Bush’s speech set up a dramatic battle that will be fought out over the next two days and whose outcome will be important in shaping his legacy, and America’s diplomatic standing in the alliance.”
Derek Chollet, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, said Mr. Bush’s speech was “a combination of valedictory and marker-laying.” Mr. Bush will probably lose the argument on Ukraine and Georgia, Mr. Chollet said. “But he doesn’t care so much, and he believes he’s on the right side of the issue.”
Getting NATO support for more troops in Afghanistan and for a limited European missile-defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic is probably more important to Mr. Bush before the meeting with Mr. Putin, Dr. Asmus and Mr. Chollet said.
In his speech, Mr. Bush urged the alliance to “maintain its resolve and finish the fight” in Afghanistan and to deploy more troops there to combat the Taliban, Al Qaeda and other threats around the world.
With the war in Afghanistan now in its seventh year, and 47,000 NATO troops already there, Mr. Bush stressed the continuing threat of terrorism to the entire West. In addition to France’s commitment announced Wednesday, Poland and Romania will also send more troops, and Washington is sending 3,200 more marines.
But a full accounting of any additional forces will not be clear until Thursday; Canada had said it would consider pulling its troops out of the dangerous southern region of Afghanistan unless other countries provided 1,000 more soldiers.
Anthee Carassava contributed reporting from Athens.