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NATO: Assembly Attempts To Learn Lessons From Rift Over Iraq War

The U.S.-led war in Iraq exposed deep divisions within NATO and put a heavy strain on trans-Atlantic ties. What are the lessons to be learned for NATO? Parliamentarians from NATO countries and their neighbors have been discussing this issue at their spring assembly in Prague, RFE/RL reports.

Prague, 26 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Disagreement over the war in Iraq exposed serious cracks in the NATO alliance.

The United States threatened its European ally France with negative consequences for leading the anti-war opposition.

The Europeans were divided, too. The new NATO members from Central Europe sided with the United States, a stand that drew strong criticism from French President Jacques Chirac.

But it's now time to step back, heal the rifts, and learn the lessons. That was the message today in Prague from a report that Dutch parliamentarian Bert Koenders presented to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly.

"When the French president insults the recent accession countries and the U.S. wants to punish France, it's time to come down the ladders of arrogance and power," said Koenders. "This doesn't help."

Koenders suggested that a number of lessons could be learned from the dispute over the war in Iraq.

He said the United States could have consulted directly with NATO instead of with individual allies. There may not have been agreement, but it could have limited the damage.

Much of the disagreement was over the nature of the threat posed by Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction. So Koenders said the allies should use NATO more to exchange this kind of sensitive information.

He said they may also want to consider tweaking NATO's decision-making process. At the moment, it's done by consensus. But majority voting could prevent a repeat of the kind of deadlock over Turkey's defense planning seen in the run-up to the war.

If consensus voting stays, then how about boosting "constructive abstention"? That would come into play if one member doesn't agree with the others but doesn't want to prevent them from acting.

And Koenders suggested that NATO should give much more attention to the Mediterranean countries on its southern fringes.

But Koenders' report prompted many fresh questions -- and few answers.

One big question is, how will the United States seek to deal with NATO in the future? Will it deal with it as a whole, or will it "cherry pick" individual allies to suit the task? In that case, how can NATO continue to be relevant?

Michael Hancock, a British MP who was against the war in Iraq, said, "If you read this report, one would question whether that could seriously ever be the same again, whether the relationships within NATO and alliances many have held to be fundamental in our lifetime can ever be the same again. Can nations ever really trust each other again? Is it right for an American president to say to countries, 'You are either with us or against us,' without realizing the consequences of such a statement [or] what that means to some countries to be told that because you're not signing up to fight a war with us the whole relationship between the two countries is tarnished, possibly forever? Will there ever be enough trust again for countries to share information of a security nature?"

The United States says it doesn't want to go it alone -- but it will if it has to. And in the view of U.S. delegates, international organizations like the United Nations and NATO are not always up to the job of dealing with crises like Iraq.

U.S. Senator Gordon Smith said yesterday, "We will work first with NATO and work secondly with the UN, but we will never subordinate the security of the American people to either if, in fact, they go different ways. There is a very real argument being made in Paris today that the French should lead Europe to establishing a bipolar world as counterweight to America. They're free to do that, and Europe is certainly free to follow that, but America's not going to be subordinate to that."

A Norwegian delegate suggested that fighting terrorism could help reunite the alliance and its partners, since that's the number one threat these days.

But that raised questions, too. Regarding al-Qaeda, Russian delegate Vassily Iver said, "They say the network is extensive, that they work all over the world. But so far, there's no answer to what the situation is now. I have a provocative proposal: Let's invite an al-Qaeda representative to the Parliamentary Assembly and ask them what they want. Because we're not getting a resolution to this problem. We don't know what their goals are."

That issue proved a nonstarter with Koenders. "To be very frank with you, if you invite a Chechen terrorist to the Duma, then maybe there is an idea of doing this. But [obviously], this would in my view legitimize terrorism, give them the floor, and I'm not sure it would work," he said.

Koenders admits it's too early to draw the full lessons from the war. It'll take a few more months -- and perhaps a few more discussions like today's.

But NATO Secretary-General George Robertson believes the alliance is well on its way to overcoming divisions over Iraq. He said today that NATO's decision to take over the stabilization force in Afghanistan, as well as helping Poland with similar efforts in Iraq, show the alliance has overcome its internal divisions.

NATO's Parliamentary Assembly continues through 28 May in Prague.