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NATO as Anti-Terror Tool

November 20, 2002

It has been 11 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization continues to fumble toward a mission beyond protecting Europe from Soviet invasion. The new threat, terrorism, is obvious. The trick is in moving from a line of armored defense to a few thousand fast-response troops -- even as NATO expansions threaten to overwhelm nimbleness.

Leaders of the 19 NATO nations meet in Prague, Czech Republic, on Thursday and Friday. The old alliance was transformed three years ago when it admitted three former Communist countries: Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. Now it is considering seven additional nations, including three Baltic states that were once part of the Soviet Union: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

For most of its history, NATO has been a shared forum of democracies as well as a bulwark of defense. The beneficial price of membership has been reforms such as civilian control over the military and peaceful settlement of border issues. However, the expansions threaten to make the coalition more a political debating society than a military alliance.

To guard against that, the coalition should press ahead with a rapid-response force ready to go quickly outside Europe's borders to be a full partner in Afghanistan-like campaigns.

Russia has been publicly quiet about the NATO expansion up to its borders and inside former Soviet territory. In part that reflects weakness, and in part the muting of Western protests against Russia's crackdown on rebels in Chechnya.

President Bush plans to visit Russia after the Prague summit and can reassure President Vladimir V. Putin that enlarging the coalition and inventing a new military role do not threaten Moscow.

Bush will discuss with other NATO leaders possible military action against Iraq, but Germany's strong opposition guarantees there will be no consensus. That does not preclude future joint actions. NATO nations assisted U.S. forces in the fight against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and flew security patrols over U.S. airspace after Sept. 11.

NATO's secretary-general, Britain's George Robertson, has since pushed member nations to increase their own defense spending or risk being an afterthought in U.S.-led military campaigns. Bush should make the case for future campaigns where early intervention could save lives. For instance, NATO dithered over Kosovo, and it should not repeat such a mistake.

Leaders of NATO nations have broken up Al Qaeda cells at home and scoured terrorists' bank accounts; they recognize that terrorism threatens them.

The leap from that understanding to a rapid-strike force that would operate far outside Europe is a big one. Picking the best military elements from each nation and integrating them into a cohesive force will require diplomacy as well as tactical training. But creating a new mobile brigade may be necessary to keep NATO a partner with Washington -- and to keep the alliance relevant in Europe and beyond.

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