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Middle East: U.S. Pushes For NATO Role In Surrounding Region

  • Ahto Lobjakas

Increasing U.S. pressure for a long-term NATO role in the "Greater Middle East" region stretching from Afghanistan to Morocco has prompted a lively debate within the alliance.

Brussels, 18 February 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Politicians in Washington are indicating the U.S. would like to see the NATO alliance take on a greater role in the region known as the "Greater Middle East."

Republican Senator Chuck Hagel told NATO ambassadors last month in Brussels that the alliance's future depends on whether or not it can transform that restive region over the next half-century.

This may mean a complete NATO takeover in Afghanistan, and a beefed-up role for the alliance in Iraq and elsewhere in the region. A U.S. NATO delegate has suggested the issue will surface during the alliance's Istanbul summit in June.

The U.S. proposal is not universally popular, however. Mike Gapes is a member of the British delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. He spoke to RFE/RL during an assembly meeting in Brussels earlier this week.

"I'm afraid I don't accept that NATO is defined simply in terms of the Greater Middle East. I mean, NATO has a role with regard to Afghanistan, at the moment; potentially with regard to Iraq, but I think NATO is effectively the only hard-power international security organization that exists," Grimes said.

Gapes says a NATO presence remains important in the Balkans, and that the alliance must also continue to foster relations with Russia, Ukraine, and the southern Mediterranean countries.

He also says a NATO role in Iraq is premature before a "representative" government is in place in the country, and adds that NATO, although making an important contribution in Afghanistan, cannot be a substitute for the wider international community there.

American officials admit that one reason the U.S. is keen to see an expanded NATO role in the Greater Middle East is the "overstretch" of its own armed forces.

Markus Meckel, the head of Germany's NATO delegation, says such assertions raise questions about America's true motives. "The Bush administration tries to include NATO in Iraq, but that is not a strategic question, it's a question of momentum because they see that they would like to get some burden-sharing there, because they have a feeling that if the continue in that way they will fail," Meckel said.

"I'm afraid I don't accept that NATO is defined simply in terms of the Greater Middle East. I mean, NATO has a role with regard to Afghanistan, at the moment; potentially with regard to Iraq, but I think NATO is effectively the only hard-power international security organization that exists."
Meckel says the United States are a vital factor in guaranteeing European security, but that the EU will develop its own defense capabilities if necessary. The first question the U.S. needs to address, Meckel says, is whether it is really willing to treat the EU as an equal partner.

"At first we have the question not only of [the] Middle East and the tasks there; at first it's a question of the trans-Atlantic relationship. I think that the most important challenge is to find and to have [not only] common interests but a common political will of [the] United States and the European countries to identify their common interests and to fight for [them]," Meckel said.

Skepticism at Washington's Greater Middle East drive extends beyond Europe. Serious doubts are also evident in Turkey, which will play a major role in any new Middle Eastern initiative for NATO.

Vahit Erdem, the head of the Turkish delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, says the U.S. needs to clarify its thinking. "The United States has [a] new idea about the Middle East, what they [call the] Greater Middle East, maybe from Afghanistan to Morocco. But what is the content of [the] 'Greater Middle East'? We are not clear about [that]," Erdem said.

Erdem also said a far more comprehensive approach is needed to defeat the terrorist threat in the Middle East.

"The answer is, start [the] democratization process in that region, and change the economic system [slowly], and create more [security]. Of course, most of the terrorists, maybe 60 percent of world terrorism, comes from [the] Middle East, according to the statistics. It is a threat to the West, to the United States. So, instead of always having military action against this terrorism, instead [one must] change the system in the Middle East," Erdem said.
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