Bush Facing Resistance to NATO Expansion

WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Bush has told NATO members he wants to expand the alliance to include three Balkan countries and put Ukraine and Georgia on track for membership.

Bush probably will get some of what he wants at the NATO summit Wednesday through Friday in Romania. But with only nine months left in his term, Bush may find his ability diminished to persuade European leaders, just as it is with Congress. That is a reflection of the president's low public approval ratings and the anticipation of a new administration that will set policy.

European leaders know the new president could shift course on NATO. For that reason, they may seek to put aside some decisions, including commitments to Ukraine and Georgia, until after Bush leaves office in January.

Bush also could see his goal of winning membership for Albania, Croatia and Macedonia at the summit partially thwarted.

"I think this NATO summit is basically the 'Goodbye George' summit," said Daniel Hamilton, Director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies. "A lot of the energy is looking beyond the administration."

Bush also faces stiff resistance on Georgia and Ukraine from Russian President Vladimir Putin, who sees a threat in further NATO expansion into Russia's former sphere of influence.

On Friday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko promised broader cooperation with NATO in Afghanistan were the alliance to shelve invitations to Ukraine and Georgia.

Some NATO allies want to avoid further tension with Russia during the Kremlin leadership transition. Putin, who is expected to attend the Bucharest summit, steps down as president in May.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has signaled opposition despite Bush's support. As a consensus organization, one veto at the summit would block Georgian and Ukrainian hopes, and Germany seems to have the backing of other European countries.

But Bush sees NATO expansion as a way to cement democratic gains in Europe.

"When countries aspiring to democracy ... come forward and say, we would like to join your Atlantic institutions, he's strongly inclined to say, yes," Bush's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, told reporters last week.

Bush assured Georgia's president, Mikhail Saakashvili, of U.S. backing during a White House visit this month and plans a similar message for the Ukrainians when he visits Kiev before the summit meeting.

"I do know that one of the signals we're going to have to send, and must send, is there is a clear path forward for Ukraine and Georgia," Bush told reporters this past week.

But aware that Ukrainians will get their hopes up for a concrete announcement, Bush stressed several times to a Ukrainian reporter that the decision will be made by all the NATO allies in Bucharest.

"It's very important for the people in your country to understand that the decision won't be made until after I leave Ukraine and make it to Romania," he said.

As for the Balkan countries, a push by his administration in recent months seems to have won over most allies. But Macedonia is in a dispute with Greece that could sink its chances. Greece has insisted it will veto Macedonia if it does not change its name. Greece feels the name, which is the same as a neighboring province of northern Greece, implies a territorial claim.

The administration has argued that the three Balkan countries should be welcomed all at once. If Macedonia is blocked, some believe Albania, whose application is seen as weaker than Croatia's, could be told to intensify reforms of its political system before joining.

Talks between Greece and Macedonia led by U.N. envoy Matthew Nimetz are expected to go down to the wire.

The U.S. is holding out hopes of a last-minute breakthrough. But so far, attempts to talk Greece down from a veto have shown no signs of working.


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