President Bush backs NATO expansion, urges more troops for war in Afghanistan
Hoping to set the stage for a summit of leaders from the trans-Atlantic alliance here this week, Bush also said that he remained committed to building a U.S. missile defense system in Europe fiercely opposed by Moscow and that the United States would not endanger Iraq with precipitous U.S. troop withdrawals.
On the eve of his last NATO summit and anticipating a tense showdown over NATO expansion, Bush lobbied fellow leaders.
He argued that the alliance should be open to all European democracies, for now the former Soviet republics Ukraine and Georgia but also others in the future. Arguing against the misgivings from France and Germany that opening the process to Ukraine and Georgia could overly harm relations with Moscow, a needed energy supplier, Bush said a larger NATO is not a threat to Russia.
“We must make clear that NATO welcomes the aspirations of Georgia and Ukraine for membership in NATO and offers them a clear path forward toward that goal,” the president said. “NATO membership must remain open to all of Europe’s democracies that seek it, and are ready to share in the responsibilities of NATO membership.”
But Russia is vehemently against extending NATO closer to its borders and has threatened to target Ukraine and Georgia with missiles if the plans go ahead. With nine ex-Soviet bloc countries already in the alliance, Moscow is sensitive to any further loss of influence in the former Soviet sphere, especially in places like Ukraine and Georgia that were at the heart of the one-time superpower.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov responded colorfully to Bush’s address, calling the proposed expansion “artificial – and completely unnecessary” to today’s anti-terror battles.
“What’s happening will not (go) unanswered, I assure you,” he said before the State Duma in Moscow. But we will respond to this pragmatically, not like a small child in school, who is offended by someone and slams the door and runs crying from the classroom.”
Bush’s half-hour speech allowed him to forcefully and unapologetically make his case on all of his top NATO agenda items, getting the spotlight in the summit host city virtually to himself before the meetings get under way Wednesday night. He addressed about 500 local political and business leaders in a marble hall distinctive for its two glass-topped domes. Bush also was seeing NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer before the summit’s official launch at a Cotroceni Palace dinner.
But Bush and his wife, Laura, left Bucharest after the speech to spend most of the day at Neptun, the presidential retreat on Romania’s Black Sea coast built during the reign of the late communist leader Nicolae Ceausecu. Bush and this country’s now pro-Western leader, President Traian Basescu, posed quickly for photographs in a stucco and wood villa surrounded by evergreen trees within the gated complex. Basescu is a frequent visitor to Neptun during summer.
In his speech, Bush praised Romania and its people for their contributions to NATO and to the war in Iraq.
“The Romanian people have seen evil in their midst and they have seen evil defeated,” he said. “They value freedom, because they have lived without it. And this hard experience has inspired them to fight and sacrifice for the liberty of others.”
Bush faces another Iraq milestone next week, when Gen. David Petraeus, the top military commander, and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador, report to Congress on the status of the war. The president is expected to make an announcement on troop levels shortly after their April 8-9 testimony, but he is widely expected to endorse their recommendation that any new decreases should wait until fall and only after officials ascertain that further drawdowns wouldn’t compromise recent security gains.
“We will show that America will not abandon our friends in the fight against terror and extremism,” Bush vowed.
The president also called for NATO members to both increase their defense investment to support alliance operations and, for those who have not done so already, to “step forward with additional forces” in Afghanistan, where Taliban and al-Qaida extremists are resurgent. He noted that bin Laden in a recent audiotape had renewed threats to strike in Europe.
“Our alliance must maintain its resolve and finish the fight,” he said. “If we do not defeat the terrorists in Afghanistan, we will face them on our own soil. Innocent civilians in Europe and North America will pay the price.”
On missile defense, Bush said the plans to base the shield in NATO members Poland and the Czech Republic were critical to defending against threats posed by rogue nations like Iran. He said U.S. intelligence shows that, “with continued foreign assistance,” Iran could test an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States and all of Europe “if it should choose to do so.”
“The need for missile defense in Europe is real, and in my opinion, it is urgent,” he said. “Today, we have no way to defend Europe against such an emerging threat, so we must deploy ballistic missile defenses that can help protect,” he said.
Bush will meet twice this week with outgoing Russian President Vladimir Putin. Moscow has cast doubt on the need for missile defense, but also has suggested that the United States should cooperate with Russia if it intends to proceed on a shield. Last summer, Putin proposed that the United States jointly use an early warning radar in Azerbaijan instead of a system based in Central Europe.
Bush was complimentary of Putin’s suggestions and expressed willingness to incorporate some. But even as he sought to ally Russian concerns, he suggested he would not abandon the core U.S. plan.
“We believe these sites could be included as part of a wider threat monitoring system that could lead to an unprecedented level of strategic cooperation between Russia and the NATO alliance,” the president said. “The missile defense capabilities we are developing are not designed to defend against Russia – just as the new NATO we are building is not designed to defend against Russia.”