Prague, 26 May 2003 (RFE/RL) - The NATO parliamentary assembly is conducting its spring session in the Czech capital Prague this week. The meeting is bringing together hundreds of legislators from the 19 NATO member states and some 20 other countries -- mainly in Eastern Europe. The Iraq war and its consequences are high on the agenda.
The U.S.-led war exposed divisions in the alliance. Some members, notably Britain and Spain, lined up in support of the United States. Other NATO heavyweights like France and Germany led the opposition to the war. That has led to a lot of debate about the future of trans-Atlantic ties.
Czech Deputy Defense Minister Miroslav Kostelka spoke first at yesterday's session and was diplomatic in describing Prague's position.
"We live in a community of [European] states that have the same cultural roots," Kostelka said. "But we can't forget that we have trans-Atlantic ties. [Especially] for the Czech Republic, we see our alliance with the U.S. and Canada as a very important part of ensuring our security. That's why we'll build ties within Europe but we are fundamentally tied to a trans-Atlantic alliance."
But the divisions were on display elsewhere. One French delegate said many Europeans don't like the Bush administration's idea of preemptive strikes because they believe it could fuel resentment and lead to more terrorist attacks against Western interests.
Then there are Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction, which were cited by the United States and Britain as a chief reason for going to war. There has not been any substantial discovery of such weapons in Iraq yet. One hawkish British delegate said he finds that "perplexing."
Another British delegate, Rachel Squire, urged patience on the issue. "There was with Iraq, as we know, a history of deceit, a refusal to cooperate. It had plenty of opportunity to hide [its weapons program] and dismantle it. As we know from our experience in the U.K. and Northern Ireland, dealing with a very small and very accessible area, all too often we couldn't even find small weapons without very specific and detailed intelligence on exactly where they were located. So I would ask our allies and friends not to draw too-quick conclusions," she said.
Still, Spanish delegate Rafael Estrella said the issue has led some to question the legitimacy of the war in Iraq. Estrella said any NATO involvement in postwar Iraq raises some fundamental issues for the alliance.
"What we are confronted with is a new scenario: a war that NATO did not wish, that is a little bit far away from the European scenario -- though I don't care how far, that's not the main issue. But NATO is now being asked to assume a role that is not in its core tasks as described in the Washington Declaration [that created the alliance.] So my concern is that if we are going to ask NATO to assume the role of [nation building] in Iraq and devoting the bulk of its military capabilities to such a mission, that should be a very consistent and very solid decision and not merely because the Americans are asking for that. It is not so simple. It will affect NATO's nature in the long run. So that is why I want a real debate on that decision," Estrella said.
Doug Bereuter, a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Nebraska and the current president of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, said he thinks the assembly can help to heal the rifts within NATO.
"We [work with less] public scrutiny [than] is the case with the [UN] Security Council and the environment around [NATO's] North Atlantic Council. So I think you find, frankly, more moderation and more effort to sustain a working consensus within the NATO countries in the NATO parliamentary assembly. If that is the case, we take back that kind of sentiment and that kind of constructive approach to our parliaments or, in our case, the [U.S.] Congress. I think it tends to heal difficulties by adequate discussion and looking for compromise," Bereuter said.
The assembly continues its session in Prague through 28 June.