Prague, 21 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Commentary and analysis in the Western press today continues to focus on the NATO summit beginning today in Prague. This morning, seven new members -- Slovakia, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Romania, and Baltic states Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia -- were formally invited to join the alliance. Much discussion centers on how NATO should adapt its form and function in order to face new, often decentralized, security threats such as terrorism. Other topics include the chances for peace in the Middle East, amid new reports of a suicide bombing aboard a bus this morning, and the challenges of reconstructing Afghanistan.
An analysis by Stephen Castle in Britain's "The Independent" says the NATO alliance has been searching for a role ever since its aid was "politely rebuffed" by Washington in the wake of the 11 September attacks. NATO responded to the attacks by invoking Article 5 of its charter for the first time ever, declaring an assault on any one member would be considered an attack on all NATO members. However, seeking to avoid the restraints of conducting a war-by-committee as in Kosovo, the United States launched a war in Afghanistan largely on its own.
This morning, NATO formally invited seven new members to join the alliance. Castle says for these nations, joining NATO "signifies acceptance by the West, a step on the road to EU membership or -- in the case of the Baltic states -- [a] guarantee against the now implausible possibility of invasion by Russia. But are they joining a true military alliance with global reach or a glorified talking shop?" Castle asks. "And will they contribute more than overflying rights, bases in areas of growing strategic interest, and a certain degree of political cover to U.S. objectives?"
The answer to these questions lies in whether the U.S. "truly engages with the new NATO, giving allies a significant stake in campaigns and consulting them before decisions are taken. Anything less will consign the world's most powerful military alliance to a lingering and long-predicted demise."
THE WASHINGTON TIMES:
An editorial in "The Washington Times" today says at the NATO summit taking place today and tomorrow in Prague, alliance members "will decide whether to take a step toward the alliance's extinction, or whether they will modernize to face today's greatest security threats. The summit was originally planned to celebrate the invitation of new Eastern European members into the alliance.... [However,] it is now unclear whether the United States has the interest, and whether Europe has the capabilities, to keep the alliance militarily strong."
The paper says that ahead of the summit, U.S. and European officials "have different views of what constitutes the greatest military threat, and, therefore, have conflicting goals of what NATO's new mission should be." Many European nations remain "consumed with stabilizing a continent that is already at peace," and are reluctant to face up to the "new threats that are posed by weapons of mass destruction and terrorism."
Yet, the paper says, the United States "has also been hesitant to call on its European allies for military assistance since 11 September. Should the United States [lose] interest in NATO, the alliance will drift toward military insignificance, causing the political power of NATO to be compromised in its wake."
THE NEW YORK TIMES:
An editorial in "The New York Times" today says the U.S. administration is now, wisely, calling for the creation "of a new NATO rapid-reaction force and pushing member countries to remedy their military deficiencies."
NATO, it says, having originally been formed "to counter Soviet military power during the Cold War, now serves other important purposes. It has proved that, in conjunction with the European Union, it can be a mechanism for reintegrating Central and East European countries long artificially cut off from the Continental mainstream." For many of these nations, the promise of NATO membership "has served as an incentive to strengthen democracy, subordinate military to civil authority, and work out diplomatic solutions to long-standing nationalist quarrels."
But the paper says unless Europe "moves aggressively to modernize its military forces," this "may not be enough. A military alliance that cannot fight together has, at best, an uncertain future."
THE WASHINGTON POST:
An editorial in "The Washington Post" says the admittance of seven new, formerly communist, nations into the NATO alliance is "cause for celebration." All these nations are now "working democracies with free-market economies; human rights are respected, and living standards are steadily growing. The grim austerity and brutal, sometimes murderous regimes of only 15 years ago are now a surprisingly distant memory."
These national successes are also "testimony to the value of NATO at a time when the alliance is being questioned on both sides of the Atlantic." NATO "has provided the framework under which the formerly communist nations of Europe have democratized. Eager for the security offered by a military alliance with the United States, and anxious to be accepted as members" of the West, "press freedoms have been guaranteed, elections held, and potentially explosive problems with ethnic minorities defused; Soviet-style military and police apparatuses have been systematically dismantled."
The paper notes that some observers argue that NATO "has ceased to be a workable military alliance and now may be destined to wither." But in fact, it says, the alliance "has been slowly but steadily rebuilding itself for the 21st century." Whether NATO "now becomes a force for combating terrorists and rogue states and for spreading democracy beyond Europe will depend on whether the political will for a strong trans-Atlantic partnership can be sustained, both in Washington and in Europe."
Even amid reports of a suicide bombing this morning that left at least 10 dead in Jerusalem, in the first attack since 4 November and the first in Israel since the start of a general election campaign, "there is also some good news," says Jacques Schuster in "Die Welt."
The election of Amram Mitzna as the new chairman of the Labor Party "not only helps overcome the confusion that has been prevalent since the party's defeat two years ago, but [creates] a genuine political opposition." Unlike his predecessors, Mayor Mitzna of Haifa enjoys popularity throughout the country and also has the courage to negotiate with the Palestinians. Mitzna intends to ease tensions and is ready for negotiations with whoever in the Palestinian camp is willing to enter into talks. Should there be no agreement, Mitzna favors a separation of the two nations and an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and from the settlements.
Schuster notes that the battle is far from over. Every additional suicide attack wins more support for Israel's hard-line Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. But Schuster says that Mitzna offers the Israelis a real alternative.
In France's daily "Le Monde," Patrick Jarreau says the modernization of NATO's military capabilities should be as much a focus of the Prague summit as the expansion of the alliance. American officials are especially eager for this development, he says. Admitting new members to come under the protection of the NATO alliance of Western democracies, to guard them against the sorts of conflicts that have beset them throughout history, is not the only issue. NATO must also, U.S. officials say, be capable of facing today's common enemy -- no longer communism, but global terrorism.
Jarreau says three days after the arrival of the weapons-inspection team in Baghdad, the question of Iraq is obviously on the delegates' minds, but not on the agenda. He notes that during the first Gulf War in 1990, there had never been a question of NATO taking part in the campaign against Iraq. Nevertheless, a wide international coalition was formed to evict Iraq from Kuwait.
Nevertheless, he says, U.S. leaders are hoping for the world leaders in Prague to adopt a declaration expressing NATO's support for UN decisions and asking that Iraq submit itself to the UN's demands.
THE NEW YORK TIMES:
An editorial in "The New York Times" says Afghanistan "requires substantial outside help to avoid returning to the lawlessness that opened the door to the Taliban a decade ago." Much of Afghanistan's infrastructure remains in ruins, the paper says. The population lacks employment opportunities and the new central government under Hamid Karzai "barely rules beyond Kabul's city limits. A generation of Afghan men has known little but incessant warfare since Soviet troops invaded the country in 1979. Afghanistan's women were long shut out of education and employment. Those who survived and the millions of refugees now returning need help re-establishing their lives and moving back to the land."
The paper says agriculture remains the foundation of Afghanistan's economy "and its most promising source of new jobs. Decades of war ruined irrigation projects, scattered seed stocks, and destroyed the roads needed to transport agricultural goods to market. The central government also needs help paying the salaries of civil servants and establishing its authority throughout the country. Schools must be rebuilt and children inoculated against polio and other diseases." The editorial says while many countries have pledged their willingness to help Afghanistan, the United States "must lead the way."
An editorial in the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" also looks at the situation in Afghanistan, and says that the reconstruction is proving "an arduous task." The Western community must remain aware of its lingering responsibility to this nation since it freed the country from the Taliban -- even though this was done "out of self-interest." In addition, the West has additional responsibility because it looked on at the civil war in Afghanistan without lifting a finger.
Referring to the agreement adopted in Bonn, Germany, last year to establish an interim government and provide aid for the reconstruction of the country, the commentary says, "Afghanistan must not be permitted to regress or be forgotten."
In this connection, Berlin is aware of its responsibilities and is willing to strengthen its engagement in Afghanistan by participating in the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force).
On the other hand, Berlin is also aware that, should Iraqi President Saddam Hussein fail to comply with UN demands to reveal his weapons of mass destruction, this will mean Iraq faces the serious consequences of war. However, says the commentary, Germany could avoid participation in this campaign if it can prove its resources have been stretched to the limit in its engagement in Afghanistan.
In France's "Le Figaro," correspondent Pierre Bocev says the military contributions of NATO's seven new members will be insignificant, but the political advantages of enlargement are clear. Previously entangled in a difficult postcommunist transition, the "Prague 7" moved toward democracy. Bocev says without Slovakia's hopes for NATO membership, nationalist and former authoritarian Premier Vladimir Meciar would have been re-elected in Bratislava three months ago.
But a lot remains to be done, says Bocev. Corruption runs rampant almost everywhere and the temptation to sell illegal arms is evident throughout the region.
For NATO itself, he says, this eastward enlargement risks complicating its operation. As everything is decided unanimously, it will be no easier with 26 in the future than it was with 19 in the past. "For an organization in permanent search of consensus," he says, "size is a challenge."
And the next wave of enlargement already looms, says Bocev. Macedonia, Croatia, and Albania await invitations. Georgia and Ukraine are also aspirants. And one day, he says, NATO may bring democracy to the former Soviet and strategically essential dictatorships in Central Asia, or Belarus.
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL EUROPE:
In "The Wall Street Journal Europe," columnist Matthew Kaminski says NATO's Prague summit will result in "a fair share of big initiatives." The alliance has welcomed seven new members and will "unveil a new, elite rapid-response force. The Europeans, yet again, will commit themselves to narrow the military gap with America. The U.S., yet again, will recommit itself to Europe."
To today's Atlanticists, he says, "both sides still need each other [as] much as during the Cold War. And yet, that isn't the mainstream view in Washington or Paris." After 11 September, NATO was surprised "by America's dismissive approach to the alliance, which invoked its self-defense clause and then did virtually nothing." Kaminski quotes one NATO observer as saying Washington seems to treat NATO as "an elderly aunt who comes unexpectedly for a visit: they're glad to see her, have lots of warm memories, but she soon gets the feeling she's come at a bad time."
But Kaminski says the alliance is "the only institutional link between America and Europe, whose interests overlap far more than diverge. It runs three peacekeeping missions in the Balkans and -- if the recently embraced commitment to go 'out of area' beyond Europe ever gets put into practice -- might easily do the same in Afghanistan and Iraq." NATO also "[keeps] the U.S. a European power and [can] reach out to troubled democracies beyond its frontiers like Ukraine and Central Asia."
(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba contributed to this report.)