The opposition of three NATO countries to provide immediate military assistance to Turkey in a possible war against Iraq has triggered one of the worst rifts in the alliance's 54-year history. The United States and Britain have blamed the dissenters -- especially France -- for undermining NATO's mission and credibility. But Paris argues the core of the debate is about the United Nations' precedence in managing the Iraqi crisis.
Prague, 14 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- France, Germany, and Belgium this week stiffened their stance over planning for NATO military assistance to Ankara in the event of any U.S.-led war on Iraq.
The three nations vetoed a Turkish request for AWACS surveillance planes, antimissile batteries, and chemical- and biological-warfare teams. Ankara requested the aid to protect itself against a possible Iraqi preemptive strike or counterattack on its territory.
France, Germany, and Belgium argue that any decision to meet Turkey's demands for military assistance would lock NATO into an inappropriate "logic of war" while there is still room for diplomacy.
Envoys from NATO's 19 members wrangled for four consecutive days this week but failed to reach a compromise. Talks may resume tomorrow.
France's firmness in particular has drawn much criticism overseas, with some U.S. officials accusing Paris of pursuing a strategy aimed at diminishing America's influence in the world.
Some analysts, however, argue the French stance stems from the idea that despite its trans-Atlantic nature, NATO remains a regional forum that must give precedence to the UN Security Council.
Ronja Kempin is a senior research associate at the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik). She told RFE/RL that France does not want NATO to interfere in the decision-making process. "[The French] do not understand why NATO comes in this game right now because NATO has never played any role in [the current] Iraqi issue. The French standpoint within the UN Security Council is very clear. They want the inspections to go on. They want to prolong them. And I think what they do not want now is to have a fait accompli across NATO. They do not want to have parallel structures, [that is] on the one hand the UN Security Council [which would] decide on the political [level] and, on the other hand, a parallel structure [represented by] NATO, which [would] decide whether to intervene militarily to support [a] northern front through Turkey," he said.
Paris rejects U.S. charges that it is refusing to meet basic provisions of NATO's 1949 founding treaty. That treaty requires its signatories to consult whenever any one of them believes the security of any of the member states is threatened.
Paris says it is not opposed to individual allies meeting Ankara's demands, while arguing that NATO's steps regarding military assistance to Turkey must be subordinated to a possible UN resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq.
Speaking to Turkish reporters on 12 February, France's ambassador to Ankara, Bernard Garcia, denied his country's stance is endangering Turkey's security. "Should Turkey really come under threat, France would assume all its responsibilities before that country. However, one is forced to admit that, as of today, Turkey is not being threatened insofar as it is not involved in U.S. war preparations," Garcia said.
Turkish lawmakers have already authorized U.S. military engineers to upgrade seaports and airfields for use in any war against Iraq. Parliamentary hearings on the possible deployment of U.S. troops on Turkish soil were originally due to start on 18 February, but Ankara now says its legislators will not consider the issue until the UN Security Council decides on its next steps toward Iraq.
France is one of the five permanent members of the Security Council and insists the UN should be the only international forum to decide whether to take military action against Iraq. It argues that NATO must not take any steps that would preempt the council's decisions. "That the current debate undermines NATO's credibility is regrettable. But it is precisely those countries that have raised the issue of a possible [military] operation against Iraq when they knew there was no consensus on that issue among [NATO] allies that are responsible for the present situation. Those countries could not reasonably expect France to prejudge in any way the final decision of the Security Council," French Ambassador Garcia said.
Trevor Salmon teaches at the University of Aberdeen's Department of Politics and International Relations in Scotland. He believes there is more to the French position than simply ranking the Security Council higher than NATO. "Ever since [President Charles] de Gaulle took France out of the integrated military structure of NATO in 1966, France has not been at the heart of NATO. In the 1990s, it looked as if France was going to come back in to the integrated military structure, but it fell out with the Americans about the command of the Sixth Fleet, etc, etc. So France is still not fully in the integrated military command of NATO and therefore can only be marginal in NATO because it is not where some of the key decisions are taken. And that is why, rather like Russia, if you are in the top club like the OSCE [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] or whatever, if you are like Russia a permanent member of the Security Council, you want those organizations to take the key role," he said.
Salmon's comments echo angry remarks made by Richard Perle, a senior adviser to the U.S. Defense Department. On 12 February, Perle questioned whether NATO should continue the bulk of its decision making through its 19-member North Atlantic Council, where decisions are made on a consensual basis, or whether emphasis should be made on the Defense Planning Committee, where France has no seat.
Addressing a U.S. Senate panel yesterday, U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Richard Meyers suggested NATO might be considering bypassing France in providing military assistance to Turkey. "NATO is looking at ways to deploy the help Turkey needs -- at least part of the AWACS and the missile-defense assets -- in a way that would not require political approval. They think they may have that legal authority," Meyers said.
Some European critics suspect the U.S. administration of using the alliance as a political tool, turning back against Washington its argument that France is playing tricks with NATO.
German expert Kempin, for example, said Washington's stance toward NATO strongly differs from what it was in the wake of 11 September, when the bloc invoked Article 5 of the Washington Treaty. Article 5 requires all allies to assist when any one of them comes under attack.
"All these discussions about NATO's future [started when] NATO activated Article 5 after 11 September and when the U.S. said, 'Thanks. This is really nice. This is a good sign, but we can do our war on terror without NATO.' And now they are going back to NATO on this Iraq issue. The question is: Why are they doing this?" Kempin said.
Kempin said she believes the U.S. is using Turkey's request to NATO "a little bit like it is using the so-called 'coalition of the willing,'" -- that is, as a test to see whether Europe is ready to go with them into Iraq.
German Defense Minister Peter Struck has signaled that Berlin might reverse its veto when NATO ambassadors meet, tentatively tomorrow, to examine the joint U.S.-Turkish demand. Whether France and Belgium will follow remains unclear.
Also unclear is whether the alliance -- in case it reaches consensus over Turkey's request -- will refer to the UN Security Council. "There is a sense that sooner or later even NATO -- legally and by the UN Charter -- would have to go to the [Security Council]. But remember, in [Kosovo in 1999], they only went afterwards, not before. I think this is one of those things you could argue but, technically and legally, you should probably have at some point the UN Security Council saying 'yes' or 'no.' On the other hand, the UN Security Council is quite clear that if you think you are going to be attacked, or if you are attacked, then you can defend yourself. So there is a bit of a limbo here. You can defend yourself, yes. But sooner or later -- and that is the question, how much sooner or later? -- you are supposed to go to the UN Security Council," Aberdeen University's Salmon said.
Baghdad denies it has any plans to attack Turkey.
As Garcia stated on 12 February, since Turkey itself acknowledges that it is not under immediate threat from Iraq, it would be wrong to believe the current debate is about whether NATO should offer military support to Ankara. "The debate is not about the nature of this support either. It is about the political significance of NATO's role in preparing a military intervention [against Iraq]," the French envoy added.