BRUSSELS, AUG. 7 -- The latest crisis in the Persian Gulf triggered by Iraq's invasion of Kuwait is helping to resolve NATO's identity problem in the post Cold War era by showing how the alliance shares security interests that require mutual protection well beyond the East-West arena.
U.S. officials say they have been surprised by the unanimous support the European allies have given to tough economic sanctions and even military action against Iraq. In two NATO meetings held here since the invasion occurred last Thursday, U.S. officials said none of the alliance members expressed any reservations about getting involved in a confrontation unrelated to the Soviet Union or the Warsaw Pact.
Instead, NATO representatives emphasized the need to show a united front to counter Iraq's aggression, safeguard oil supplies and demonstrate that the alliance can adapt to new missions in defense of Western security interests now that the Soviet military threat is rapidly diminishing.
The European allies are far more dependent on gulf oil than the United States. In the aftermath of the Cold War with NATO scrambling to define its new role, the Iraqi invasion has suddenly reminded the European allies that a reliable flow of oil from the gulf is a paramountsecurity consideration which may require the kind of joint political and military action that only NATO can provide.
The United States and the European allies have clashed often over the years about so-called "out of area" concerns. In previous regional crises, the United States has tried to enlist the support of its European allies to strengthen its diplomatic hand.
But many European countries resisted efforts to extend NATO's role beyond its prescribed mandate. During the 1973 Middle East war, the Bonn government strongly objected to the movement of U.S. tanks from bases in West Germany to Israel, at a moment when that country was in grave peril, because it transgressed NATO's defined position.
In 1987, when the United States provided an escort to protect Kuwaiti tankers from Iranian gunboats, some European allies participated in the mission but carefully refrained from identifying it as a NATO operation.
But the alliance has not voiced any doubts this time about responding strongly to the Iraqi invasion. The absence of any hand-wringing has been all the more impressive, U.S. officials say, because several European allies derive much of their oil from Iraq or Kuwait and have obvious concerns over disrupting those economic relationships.
Denmark, for example, receives two-thirds of its oil from Kuwait and has criticized earlier U.S. efforts to involve NATO in the gulf, but has been firm this time in maintaining a strong stance against Iraq's invasion.
At the two NATO meetings on Friday and Monday, member delegates said that Turkey was given strong reassurances that NATO forces would provide immediate assistance if Iraq retaliated against Turkey's decision to shut down two pipelines that pump Iraqi crude oil across its territory.
"The NATO treaty says an attack against one member will be treated as an attack against all," a senior NATO diplomat said. "The Turks finally seem convinced that the alliance will go to war if necessary to protect them."
U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III is expected to visit Ankara on Thursday to demonstrate U.S. and NATO backing for the Turkish government. Turkey announced today that it would comply with economic sanctions put forth by the United Nations banning all imports from Iraq and Kuwait. Turkey's cooperation will almost certainly halt the transport of Iraqi oil that crosses Turkey each day to an export terminal in the Mediterranean Sea. The twin pipeline can carry up to 1.65 million barrels of oil a day, well over half of Iraq's oil exports.
The European allies are also coordinating with Washington in the strategic positioning of their naval forces in the area, possibly in preparation for a blockade of the gulf waters to thwart any Iraqi effort to circumvent the U.N. boycott.
France has sent the destroyer Dupleix through the Suez Canal to join its two warships now in the gulf. Britain has sent two frigates to join a destroyer already patrolling the area.
President Bush discussed the idea of a naval blockade with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and NATO Secretary General Manfred Woerner in Washington on Monday.
The allies also have not voiced objections to the deployment of weapons and forces out of Europe during the current gulf crisis, NATO sources said.