America's defense secretary says the disagreement between the United States and Germany, France, and Belgium is actually a rift within Europe itself. Donald Rumsfeld says these three opponents in NATO are isolating themselves, not the U.S. RFE/RL correspondent Andrew F. Tully, reporting from Washington, examines this interpretation of the split in the alliance.
Washington, 14 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld says the split in NATO is not between the United States and Europe, but within Europe itself.
Rumsfeld noted that 14 European nations, along with the United States, support starting plans to protect Turkey, another NATO member, in the event of a war with neighboring Iraq. Those countries say NATO will lose its credibility if it does not try to protect Turkey from expected Iraqi reprisals.
But three NATO countries -- Belgium, France and Germany -- have vetoed the idea, saying that to make such plans would weaken efforts to avoid a war.
All 19 NATO members must approve an action before it can be implemented.
Rumsfeld says this stance reflects the thinking of what he calls "old Europe." He says those who oppose helping Turkey have isolated themselves within NATO.
Now, he says, Europe has shifted more to the East, with the rise of current and future NATO members -- like Poland, Hungary, and the Baltic states -- who support protecting Turkey.
Rumsfeld elaborated his thoughts during an appearance yesterday before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee. The defense secretary was repeatedly asked about the division within NATO. He replied that the alliance remains important to the United States and all its members -- and not just for military support:
"We need the political and the economic support as well as the military support. So I'm disappointed at the situation in NATO, where they've refused to assist Turkey with planning. On the other hand, I've been around so long that I've seen many, many times in our alliance where we've had bumps."
But Rumsfeld added that the current rift has a unique twist: "This [rift is] interesting. This one's interesting because the division is not between the United States and Europe. The division is within Europe."
The defense secretary -- who served as the U.S. ambassador to NATO three decades ago -- said it is possible for the United States and some NATO allies to act outside the alliance to help Turkey prepare to defend itself without the unanimous approval of its membership.
But he added that if France, Germany, and Belgium want the alliance to stay strong, they should join the other 16 members of the alliance on Turkey's behalf:
"In the case of military activity, we can do that without unanimity. For example, on the Turkey thing, we can go ahead and help Turkey using the 16 countries and not the three that are blocking it in NATO. Who loses in that case? NATO loses."
Ultimately, Rumsfeld told the Senate committee, he expects NATO will survive even this row.
One American analyst, however, questions Rumsfeld's perception of the dispute within the alliance, and even his interpretation of how NATO should work. He is retired General Edward Atkeson, who once served as deputy chief of staff for intelligence for the U.S. Army in Europe.
Atkeson says it is questionable whether the NATO split is truly an internal European problem, even though some European nations support helping Turkey and others do not. He acknowledges that Eastern and Southern European governments are siding with the United States on the issue. But the Atkeson says these countries really have no choice politically.
"I don't think it's a rift within Europe," Atkeson said. "You can't expect countries who have been in [NATO] as short a time as Poland or Hungary to take a hard stance against the United States. This is an argument that's coming to us from what [Rumsfeld] calls 'old Europe' -- or, I would say, from old, longtime allies."
Atkeson notes that many Eastern Europeans oppose war with Iraq despite the stand of their leaders. He adds the United States is taking a dangerous risk by trying to get NATO involved in bringing military pressure on Iraq to disarm. He says this is not the way the alliance is meant to be used:
"NATO is a defensive pact, not an offensive one. The other countries [in the alliance] say, 'We never signed on an alliance to underwrite the United States.' For example, if we had initiated a war against the Soviet Union, you would not have found a whole lot of allies saying, 'Well, we're with you, we'll meet you in Moscow.'"
The retired general says that by contrast, the use of NATO forces in the Balkans in 1999 was appropriate because it was an effort to prevent the spread of Balkan instability to the rest of the continent.