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NATO: Prague Conference Convenes To Discuss Potential Alliance Role In Greater Mideast

What role, if any, should NATO have in the Middle East? And could such a role reinvigorate the trans-Atlantic alliance between the United States and its European allies? Politicians, analysts, and diplomats discussed this at a conference in Prague.

Prague, 20 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Should NATO consider a mission in the Middle East? This was the topic up for discussion at a Prague conference this weekend (18-19 October).

It was organized by the Prague Program of Atlantic Security Studies and brings together politicians, analysts, and diplomats from the U.S. and other NATO member countries -- plus a sprinkling of Middle Eastern figures, chiefly Israeli.

Proponents cite several reasons why NATO should consider a mission of some sort in the region organizers are describing as the "greater Middle East," a rather elastic description for the area stretching from North Africa to Afghanistan. The region, they say, is the main source of threats to the West, including terrorism, weapons proliferation, rogue states, and local conflicts with potentially global repercussions.

NATO has already acted "out of area" -- chiefly in Afghanistan and the Balkans. Why not help in Iraq, or with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Such a mission, they say, could also serve to boost the alliance by bringing together the U.S. and its European allies following disagreements over Iraq.

One of the first speakers was Therese Delpech, the director of strategic affairs at the French Atomic Energy Commission. "There can be no dispute that not only stability in the greater Middle East is a common objective on both sides of the Atlantic, but that any use of weapons of mass destruction would deeply affect us all," she told the conference.

In a policy paper to accompany the meeting, two organizers briefly outlined what role NATO could play in the region -- either alone or with others. It could police a final settlement between Israelis and the Palestinians, and provide an international force in the event of an Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories. It could also have a role in Iraq, helping promote democracy and the process of nation building.

But many of today's speakers today poured cold water on the idea. Some spoke of overstretch, with NATO missions already under way in Afghanistan, the Balkans, and providing support for the Polish division in Iraq. Others disputed the idea that a Mideast mission could bridge the trans-Atlantic divide. Far from it, they said -- alliance members must overcome their divisions before considering such a mission.

Gunther Altenburg, NATO assistant secretary-general for political affairs, said: "The notion of NATO in the greater Middle East contains a discernible element of trans-Atlantic damage limitation. I think that was also a little bit the intention of all of this. In other words, the need for a NATO role is acknowledged first and foremost as a means to bring Europe and America back together after Iraq. But is this really a recipe for restoring the trans-Atlantic harmony? It's a big question. To put it bluntly, if the trans-Atlantic marriage is failing, does it really help to have a new baby?"

The conference comes amid fresh signs of that trans-Atlantic tension, this time over European Union defense plans that include a proposed EU military headquarters. The U.S. ambassador to NATO, Nicholas Burns, reportedly criticized the plans as "the most serious threat to the future of NATO."

There are other differences to smooth out too, Altenburg said -- like disagreements over the importance of NATO and its role. He said NATO was underused -- many would say sidelined -- in the Iraq crisis. Only once both sides agree on its importance can NATO debate the widening of its remit.

Altenburg said the alliance must also first find success in Afghanistan, where NATO-led troops are soon to deploy beyond Kabul. He went on to say: "We need a much broader trans-Atlantic debate on the new threats. Much of the rift [over Iraq] was the result of a diverging threat perception. And approaching the problems of the greater Middle East without having achieved a broader trans-Atlantic agreement on threats will not work. We would simply project our disagreements onto an even bigger canvas."

Another skeptic was Jeff Gedmin, head of the Aspen Institute in Berlin. He said ties between the U.S. and its allies who opposed the war -- chiefly France and Germany -- have improved since the end of the war. But he added: "I am aware that the sky is not falling and the Germans are with [the U.S.] in a very constructive way in Afghanistan, the French are working with [the U.S.] in very important ways on [weapons of mass destruction] issues. I'm aware that the admission of 10 new members to the alliance will change the character of alliance. Nor do I exclude that NATO will play some role in places like Iraq. But if it's going to be a substantial role on any sustained basis we have to tackle two problems: a gap in threat assessment and the deep ambivalence that has emerged over the last decade about America in general and about the U.S. as being a leader of the alliance."

Karel Kovanda, the Czech ambassador to NATO, said the alliance faces a double danger. "On the one hand: not meeting expectations of international actors -- anyone from the UN to U.S. to NGOs to the people of the countries themselves -- and thereby feeding doubts about NATO's relevance," he said. "On the other hand, taking up any job that offers itself, finding we can't manage it and facing the danger of failing. These are the twin dangers that NATO is facing today."