Brussels, 10 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Three NATO members -- France, Germany, and Belgium -- this morning blocked a decision to start planning for the defense of Turkey in case of war in Iraq.
The three countries lodged formal objections, breaking the so-called silence procedure called on 6 February by NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson with the backing of the United States and the remaining 15 allies. If no member had raised objections by today, military planning would have automatically begun.
Robertson this morning convened the alliance's policy-making North Atlantic Council for another emergency meeting, the fifth to discuss the request to help Turkey, initially made by the United States.
In parallel, Turkey, worried that NATO might not get the necessary military planning done in time, requested formal consultations under Article 4 of NATO's founding Washington treaty. The article provides for NATO members to consult when any of them believes its territorial integrity, political independence, or security is threatened.
According to Robertson, this is the first time Article 4 has been formally used by an ally.
This morning's meeting failed to reach a consensus, further exposing a damaging rift within NATO.
Robertson admitted after the meeting that the alliance is facing a "difficult" situation. "This is undoubtedly a difficult situation. But allies have had differences before, and they will undoubtedly have more in the future. What matters is to arrive at a consensus, and I'm confident that we will," Robertson said.
However, Robertson reiterated the official NATO stance, according to which the disagreement is "technical" and only affects the timing of defensive measures in support of Turkey. He said "everyone" agrees that NATO has an obligation to secure the defense of Turkey as one of the allies.
The U.S. ambassador to NATO, Nicholas Burns, told reporters today: "It's a most unfortunate decision by three allies to prevent NATO from assisting the legitimate defense needs of Turkey. Because of their actions, NATO now faces a crisis of credibility."
Robertson dodged a question at the news conference today on whether the three objecting countries can be blamed for undermining NATO's unity. "I don't allocate blame. Three countries have broken silence; therefore, 16 countries agree with tasking. The differences of opinion that exist today are no different to the differences that have existed in the [past]. They're just slightly more serious at this time. But I don't allocate blame," Robertson said.
But in a different context, Robertson left little doubt that the three countries are pursuing a dangerous course that may be incompatible with NATO's basic aims. He said the three countries will have to be "persuaded" to agree to the decision to start defense planning for Turkey, involving preparations for deploying Patriot antimissile defenses, AWACS planes, and anti-chemical- and anti-biological-warfare units.
NATO officials say privately that Robertson, together with the United States and its allies, are frustrated that the discussions on NATO's defense obligations toward its members have become "colored" by the debate at the United Nations on Iraq.
Germany, France, and Belgium all argue that a decision by NATO would "send a signal" that war in Iraq is inevitable.
Robertson, the United States, and the remaining 15 NATO members hold that the two issues should be considered separate and that a decision for "prudent contingency planning" for an ally in need would not prejudge the debate at the United Nations.
Robertson today said he is not seeking to "minimize the seriousness of the issue" and admitted that the arguments within the North Atlantic Council have been "very hard."
Nevertheless, he said he is confident that agreement will eventually be reached, indicating once again he fears the disagreements could seriously damage NATO. "I'm confident that if people look at the serious implications of not getting a decision, then that will, I hope, give an impetus to providing a solution and getting a consensus," Robertson said.
Robertson said the North Atlantic Council will meet again later today and probably tomorrow and the days after, as long as the issue is unresolved.