WASHINGTON, April 30 (AFP) – The Senate Foreign Relations committee on Wednesday unanimously endorsed the admission of seven Eastern European countries to NATO, and its chairman said there is “strong Senate support” for expanding the military alliance.

The committee voted 19-0 in favor of expanding the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to include the seven new member countries, bringing the total number of members to 26. “The deliberations of this committee indicate strong senate support for welcoming Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Slovenia, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Romania into the NATO alliance,” said the committee chairman, Republican Senator Richard Lugar.

“I am hopeful that a vote in favor of all seven candidates to join the alliance can take place before President (George W.) Bush’s scheduled trip to Europe at the end of the month,” the chairman said. Consideration by the full Senate is planned for next week.

Lugar’s comments were seconded by the top Democrat on the committee, Senator Joseph Biden.

“Shared values and the cumulative experience of political and military cooperation have been the backbone of success in every recent NATO operation,” Biden said.

“All seven countries invited … have proven their readiness to defend those principles,” said Biden who praised the seven countries for their participation in peacekeeping operations in the Balkans and in Afghanistan.

Biden also commended the seven for their willingness to stand with the United States during the US-led war against Iraq — a conflict that was unpopular with many US allies.

“When this country needed support last winter for its Iraq policy, all of these countries signed a statement of support for the transatlantic relationship, despite considerable pressure against them from France and others,” Biden said.

Lugar said the committee deliberations had another purpose: to review “what role NATO can and should play in the global war on terrorism,” he said.

“If we do not prevent major terrorist attacks involving weapons of mass destruction, the alliance will have failed in the most fundamental sense of defending our nations and our way of life.”
NATO was founded more than 50 years ago as a way to counter the threat of Soviet expansionism into Western Europe, but Lugar emphasized that the current threat is global terror, which the alliance may reinvent itself to combat.

“Reality demands that as we expand NATO, we also retool it, so that it can be a mechanism of burden sharing and mutual security in the war on terrorism,” he said.

The Indiana Republican said the role of the senate foreign relations committee is discussing NATO expansion over the past few weeks was not just to explore ways
to grow the alliance, but how to “retool” it.

“America is at war, and we feel more vulnerable than at any time since the end of the Cold War and perhaps since World War II,” Lugar said.

“We need allies to confront this threat effectively, and those alliances cannot be circumscribed by geographic boundaries.”

“Much work is left to be done to transform NATO into a bulwark against terrorism. An early test will be NATO’s contribution to peacekeeping and humanitarian duties in the aftermath of combat in Iraq,” Lugar said.

“A strong commitment by NATO nations to this role would be an important step in healing the alliance divisions and reaffirming its relevance for the long run.”

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