US President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown sit next to each other at the start of the NATO Summit conference in Bucharest, Thursday April 3, 2008.(AP Photo/Yves Logghe)
BUCHAREST, Romania - President Bush won NATO's endorsement Thursday for his plan to build a missile defense system in Europe over Russian objections. The proposal also advanced with Czech officials announcing an agreement to install a missile tracking site for the system in their country.
Bush also was undaunted in his drive to see the military alliance expanded further eastward, despite facing an immediate setback.
Fellow NATO leaders rejected his appeal to allow former Soviet republics Ukraine and Georgia to get on a path toward membership. But Bush's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, said the president will not drop the issue and plans to make a new pitch before he leaves office in January. The United States expects to raise the matter at a meeting of NATO foreign minister in December, Hadley said.
"NATO's door must remain open to other nations in Europe that share our love for liberty and demonstrate a commitment to reform and seek to strengthen their ties with the trans-Atlantic community," Bush said in brief remarks at an alliance meeting. "We must give other nations seeking membership a full and fair hearing."
The president expressed regret that NATO also declined to offer full membership at this meeting to Macedonia. The invitation was blocked by Greece, which says the country's name implies a territorial claim to its northern region, also called Macedonia.
"Macedonia's made difficult reforms at home," Bush said. "It is making major contributions to NATO missions abroad. The name issue needs to be resolved quickly so that Macedonia can be welcomed into NATO as soon as possible."
Albania and Croatia were invited to join the alliance, now currently at 26 members.
Progress on missile defense, though, represented a boon to Bush from the summit. Russia has strongly opposed the plan.
NATO leaders were adopting a communique stating that "ballistic missile proliferation poses an increasing threat to allied forces, territory and populations." It also will recognize "the substantial contribution to the protection of allies ... to be provided by the U.S.-led system," according to senior American officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity ahead of the statement's release.
The statement calls on all NATO members to explore ways in which the planned U.S. project, to be based in Poland and the Czech Republic, can be linked with future missile shields elsewhere. It says leaders should come up with recommendations to be considered at their next meeting in 2009, the officials said.
Significantly, the document also calls on Russia to drop its objections to the system and to accept U.S. and NATO offers to cooperate on building it, the officials said.
The plan calls for 10 interceptor missiles based in Poland and a tracking radar site in the Czech Republic.
At a news conference in Bucharest on the sidelines of the NATO summit, Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwartzenberg announced that negotiations with the Americans have been successfully completed and that a deal would be signed in early May. No U.S. official was in attendance, but the Czechs distributed a joint U.S.-Czech statement that said, "This agreement is an important step in our efforts to protect our nations and our NATO allies from the growing threat posed by the proliferation of ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction."
The Poles have yet to agree to the plan.
The backing from NATO and the announcement with the Czechs provides Bush with a powerful leg up in his negotiations with Moscow over the issue.