Last Thursday Poland was to host a conference of NATO countries prepared to contribute to a peacekeeping force in Iraq. Even a short time ago, the prospect would have seemed bizarre. A new member of NATO organizing a multinational military presence in a country whose invasion provoked unprecedented divisions within the alliance would have been regarded as cloud-cuckoo-land.
Before the Iraq war, NATO appeared fatally wounded if not dead and buried. The experience of the Kosovo war convinced many US military commanders that the alliance was not only too unwieldy but could not be trusted to fight a war either militarily or politically. The US accounted for more than 80 per cent of the firepower and was deeply frustrated by what Washington -- and London -- called "war by committee". They resented French objections to the choice of targets.
Then came Sept. 11. Few of NATO's founding fathers would have imagined that its dominant member, as opposed to the European allies, would be attacked by a Soviet missile -- none that it would be attacked by an international terrorist group. Lord Robertson, NATO's secretary-general, immediately summoned a meeting to invoke article 5 of the NATO treaty whereby an attack on one ally "shall be considered an attack against them all."
NATO thus agreed that article 5 would now cover terrorist attacks on a member state. It also agreed to a package of measures to help the US, including sending early warning aircraft to North America.
But these were purely symbolic acts. The Bush administration, and in particular the defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, did not want any NATO role where it mattered most -- military action, the bombing of Afghanistan. "Afghanistan was seen in Europe as anti-NATO", says Charles Grant, director of the thinktank, The Centre for European Reform, referring to the US air strikes.
The Pentagon drove home the point. "The mission determines the coalition. The coalition does not determine the mission". It is difficult to overestimate the negative impact the doctrine had on the French government. After accusing France for years of destabilizing NATO, here was the US saying in future it will ignore the alliance and cherry-pick the friends it wants -- "coalitions of the willing".
The fault lines in NATO were deepened by Franco-German opposition to a war against Iraq leading to both refusing to agree to a NATO decision to send early-warning aircraft and Patriot anti-missile batteries to protect Turkey from an attack by Iraqi forces. The weapons were eventually sent, after a decision by NATO's defense policy committee, of which France is not a member. Germany by then had dropped its objection. Even with this, Turkey, considered by the US as a vital NATO ally, refused to be bribed to allow US troops to cross its territory to invade Iraq.
The crisis in NATO was compounded by the decision by Bush, Blair, Aznar and eager members of what Rumsfeld called the "new Europe" -- prospective EU and NATO members in the east -- to sign an open letter supporting a war. President Chirac and Chancellor Schroeder responded with their own letter. Washington, meanwhile, says it is planning to move some of its 80,000 troops in Germany further east, to bases in Romania and Bulgaria. France wants the EU to take a more independent line on defense and security policy, with its own military headquarters separate from NATO. The EU is in charge of a small peacekeeping force in Macedonia and plans to take over from NATO peacekeeping operations in Bosnia next year. But these are soft missions. Most political and military analysts dismiss French ambitions as pie in the sky.