White House Firm on a Bigger NATO

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- U.S. President George W. Bush is more strongly committed than ever to the eastward enlargement of NATO in view of the Sept. 11 attacks, a senior NATO official said.

He was reporting on talks that NATO Secretary-General George Robertson had in Washington on Wednesday with Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and leading senators.

"Enlargement came up and the administration said 'make no mistake, we are all supportive. We haven't changed our mind.' ... More than ever this enlargement makes sense because it enhances our common security," the official told reporters Friday.

It was the clearest indication so far that the new spirit of cooperation between Russia and the West in the fight against terrorism would not prompt Bush to defer or scale down the next wave of NATO expansion, due to be launched next year.

The official said Robertson and Bush did not discuss which specific east European countries should be invited to join when the 19-nation alliance holds its next summit in Prague in November 2002.

But Bush had said his June speech in Warsaw, which envisaged a NATO from the Baltic to the Black Sea, remained valid.

NATO diplomats said it looked increasingly probable that all three former Soviet Baltic republics -- Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia -- would be invited to join, along with Slovakia, Slovenia and probably Bulgaria and Romania.

The official made clear candidates must first meet goals for military reform and civilian control over the armed forces set out in NATO's 1999 Membership Action Plan.

Russia has in the past fiercely opposed expanding NATO onto former Soviet territory but President Vladimir Putin softened that stance on a visit to Brussels two weeks ago.

He said he might reconsider his opposition to enlargement if the alliance became more of a political than a military body, and Russia felt more involved in the process.

The NATO official said that while Putin had made clear to Robertson that Moscow would never be happy about enlargement, "we detect signs that perhaps they are coming to terms with this."

"There is an acceptance that this is going to happen and we should make the best of this both on the Russian and the NATO side," he said.

U.S. leaders and Robertson agreed "we have to seize this window of opportunity" for closer cooperation with Moscow on issues ranging from counterterrorism to military reform, nuclear nonproliferation and weapons of mass destruction.

The official said the Bush administration and congressional leaders had unanimously voiced gratitude for the total support of the European allies in invoking NATO's mutual defense clause immediately after the attacks on New York and Washington.

Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres said Friday that the global defense structure should be reshaped to fight terrorism and all major world powers -- including Russia -- should join NATO.

NATO's resources should be used to combat today's dangers instead of yesterday's enemies, Peres said in an opinion article published in Sweden's leading daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter.

"Naturally the present NATO coalition must be changed to include Russia, India, China and Japan," Peres said, noting that all these countries had voiced support for the United States and Europe after the Sept. 11 attacks.

Israel is not a NATO member.