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Walker's World: Bush's personal summitry

by Martin Walker
Washington (UPI) Mar 31, 2008
There are two serious splits in the alliance ahead of this week's NATO summit in Bucharest, Romania, and the Russians are cleverly playing one against the other to exploit the differences between the United States and its European allies.

Managing this will be one of the most complex international challenges President George Bush has faced because everything will hinge on his own personal diplomacy.

The first split is over Germany's reluctance to offend Russia by granting a Membership Action Plan to both Ukraine and Georgia, two former constituent Republics of the Soviet Union, where Moscow wants to exert a zone of influence. A MAP is something between an anteroom and a conveyor belt to full NATO membership, which the United States wants to give. But Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Portugal, Luxembourg and the Netherlands fear that this would frustrate attempts to improve relations with Russia, just as Dmitry Medvedev becomes the new president.

President Bush and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have discussed the matter by phone three times in the last two weeks, which is unusually intense personal diplomacy for this U.S. president, and points to both the importance of the issue and the width of that gap that separates their positions.

The U.S. case has not been helped by the reappearance on the public stage of one of the most unpopular figures in Europe, former U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. He is disliked for his leading role in the Iraq war, for his divisive way of defining the difference between the "Old" Europe of traditional NATO allies and the "New" members from eastern and central Europe and for his abrasive, bullying ways. Last week he returned to the NATO fray to argue the case for NATO enlargement in a powerful piece in the Wall Street Journal.

"Georgia and Ukraine will likely be ready to accept NATO responsibilities in the coming years if issued membership action plans next week," he wrote. "The Bucharest summit presents an opportunity to advance the interests of all 26 member nations by expanding the NATO alliance. Now is not a time for self-doubt. It is a time for U.S. and European leadership."

The second split, with which the alliance has become wearily familiar, is over Afghanistan, where the Americans want more troops and helicopters and resources from the Europeans, while the Europeans say such further commitment is politically impossible. Some of them think the Americans got themselves into this mess with their mishandled war on terrorism and can get themselves out; some think it is not really their fight, even though European cities like London and Madrid have already been hit by al-Qaida; and some think there is no point taking political risks for a lame-duck President Bush.

Some think all these things at once, and also fret that the Americans are foolishly fighting two contradictory wars at once: one against the Taliban and the other against opium, the mainstay of the Afghan economy. They suspect that burning and confiscating the one cash crop that brings a modest prosperity to parts of Afghanistan is not the best way to win Afghan hearts and minds, and is likely to drive more Afghans into the arms of the Taliban. They may be right, even though much of that opium ends up on European streets as heroin.

Enter the Russians, who have been watching carefully as these two separate splits have emerged within the Alliance. Alexander Grushko, Russia's deputy foreign minister, suggested Friday that Moscow was "considering the possibility of deepening" cooperation with NATO in Afghanistan but made it clear that this was contingent on NATO dropping the proposal to give MAPs to Georgia and Ukraine.

The Kremlin is making a tempting offer. Although Russia would not send troops, it is proposing to increase the transit facilities for NATO troops and supplies to Afghanistan. This apparently would include both overflights and land access, and it would also suggest that the Russians would drop their efforts to get the U.S. military out of the Central Asian bases they began to use after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

This would be a concession that NATO would find useful, while it would cost Russia little. A Machiavellian analysis would add that the Kremlin is not at all displeased to see the Americans and NATO tied down in the Afghan quagmire for years to come, taking casualties and provoking bitter arguments inside NATO over contribution levels and inflicting political damage back home for all the governments involved.

The immediate price would be paid by the governments of Georgia and Ukraine, who have put great effort into getting into NATO by the MAPs route. As Grushko said, the offer of transit through Russia would not be made "if each other's lawful security interests are not taken into account."

All this is landing on Bush's personal plate. Immediately before the NATO summit Bush will visit the Ukraine capital of Kiev, where he will be pressed to help them get into NATO. Immediately after the summit Bush will meet with outgoing Russian President Vladimir Putin, who wants to keep Ukraine out, at the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

At the summit itself, he will also be pressed by Putin at the April 4 NATO-Russia Council meeting to drop "provocative" plans to install anti-missile missiles and radars in Poland and the Czech Republic.

The mixture of Alliance tensions and Russian attempts to play Germans off against Americans and to bully the Poles and Czechs while a war rages in Afghanistan gives the Bucharest summit a strange mood of deja vu. It might almost be mistaken for a Cold War summit, except for one distinctive feature -- the good personal relationship Putin and Bush have developed over the past seven years.

That may be Bush's strongest card as he tries to navigate the Afghan, Ukrainian, Czech, Polish and German minefields. The Russians know perfectly well that the next U.S. president will be far less amenable and that even Bush's preferred successor, Sen. John McCain, thinks Russia should be expelled from the G-8 summit process.

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