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NATO's Middling Agenda

By Jim Hoagland
Friday, March 28, 2008

A divided NATO will not extend a blueprint for eventual membership to Ukraine and Georgia at the alliance's summit in Bucharest next week. Instead, that gathering will focus on increasing European troop totals in Afghanistan and discussing a bold proposal by President Bush to link U.S., NATO and Russian missile defense systems within a single cooperative network.

Bush signaled these middling outcomes for the summit, which once loomed as a diplomatic train wreck, with his announcement Wednesday that he will visit President Vladimir Putin at the Russian resort of Sochi on April 6 -- one month before Putin formally leaves office.

Putin and Bush opt to finish out their intensely personal relationship as presidents in the soft glow of mutual legacy-burnishing rather than the glare of a clash over future NATO expansion and U.S. missile deployments in Europe. They will leave relations between the White House and the Kremlin mired in a rare soggy middle ground of extended ambivalence.

In private communications this month, the two leaders have dangled carrots in front of each other so they could go out not with a bang but a congratulatory back pat. Bush initiated this high-level diplomacy with a call to Putin on March 7, followed by a warm March 12 personal letter sent through the Russian Embassy here.

These contacts cleared the way for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates to deliver to Putin an eight-page "Strategic Framework Declaration" the following week in Moscow. That document contains a sweeping offer to the Russians to participate in existing U.S. and NATO missile defenses and in the development of future defensive technology.

Putin was intrigued, though the Russians still have not engaged in serious discussion on the U.S. proposals. For his part, the Russian leader brought up Sochi. But his original invitation came with strings attached, according to diplomats briefed on it two weeks ago. Putin, they concluded, was saying that a confrontation in the Romanian capital over Ukraine and Georgia would doom a Black Sea bilateral visit.

Both Putin and Bush were taken off the hook, however, by Germany's stubborn opposition to U.S. efforts to issue membership action plans to the two former Soviet republics at the April 2-4 NATO summit. Chancellor Angela Merkel bluntly told Putin in a lengthy conversation in Moscow on March 8 that Berlin would in any event block the U.S. effort, according to a variety of diplomatic sources.

That freed Putin to confirm arrangements for Sochi. And it allows Bush to start next week's trip to Europe in Kiev, where he will say -- on Tuesday -- that he is still fighting to clear a path for Ukraine and Georgia to join the alliance. It is an impasse with something for everyone, especially Merkel, who has escaped criticism from Washington for scuttling Bush's push.

That does not mean that the Bucharest summitry will not be enlivened by other serious issues and at least one moment of comic relief.

France's president, Nicolas Sarkozy, will announce that he will send a fresh battalion of at least 600 troops -- with equipment -- into Afghanistan's battleground zones. This will relieve the pressure on Canadian units that have been taking high casualties in areas where some other NATO countries refuse to deploy.

Sarkozy's contribution, plus smaller new deployments by other European nations, will enable Prime Minister Stephen Harper to argue to a restive Parliament that Canada should continue fighting in Afghanistan now that its allies are taking on more responsibility.

The summit will also issue a vision paper on Afghanistan intended "to explain to the man on the street that we know what we are doing there," says a NATO diplomat. It will in fact try to bridge the gap between U.S. reliance on counterinsurgency warfare and the belief of Germany and other European countries that reconstruction and development are actually hampered by foreign forces engaging in offensive actions.

A less weighty conflict that will be resolved at the last minute in Bucharest pits France against Germany in a battle over next year's 60th anniversary alliance summit. An agreement that the two nations would co-host the meeting on the banks of the Rhine has fallen apart under Germany's insistence on holding it in Berlin. France, which is expected to rejoin NATO's integrated military command at the 2009 meeting, continues to argue for the original idea.

It marks progress in human affairs when France and Germany are arguing over ceremonial honors, not land or weapons. The successors of Bush and Putin should be so lucky.

jimhoagland@washpost.com

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