NATO is unlikely to immediately put Ukraine and Georgia on a course toward membership, the group’s spokesman said Wednesday night, dealing a setback to President Bush, who has pushed hard to expand the 26-nation alliance to include the two countries on Russia’s southern flank that had been part of the Soviet Union.
However, NATO and Bush administration officials presented the question of taking the first steps that could lead to the two countries joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as a matter not of whether, but when, as the alliance began a summit in the Romanian capital. NATO is facing controversies that go to the heart of its changing makeup and mission as it nears its seventh decade.
France, along with Germany, opposed placing Ukraine and Georgia on the multi-step path toward membership, but at the same time, NATO spokesman James Appathurai said that the French agreed to boost their troop deployment in Afghanistan by a battalion, reflecting the new energy that Bush has sought within the alliance for Western military efforts there.
Bush expressed optimism that NATO would get behind his plan to set up a missile defense system in Central Europe -- another of his top goals this week in Europe. The summit, like many stops in a final presidential year of nearly monthly trips overseas, is a key opportunity for Bush to lock in international support for his agenda.
Speaking with reporters after meeting with NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, and before an opening dinner, Bush said, “I feel good about what I’m hearing from my fellow leaders about their desire to support Afghanistan.”
Still, the support on offer appeared to fall short of what the Pentagon says is needed.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said in Washington on Wednesday that NATO commanders needed as many as two additional combat brigades -- 7,500 soldiers -- as well as 3,000 military trainers to meet current needs. The French offer would be for about 700 to 800 troops.
“We’ve had a significant impact there, but we don’t have enough forces there to hold [ground] in what is a classic counterinsurgency,” said Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen at a Pentagon news conference. “That’s what we need.”
Mullen said the extra military personnel would be in addition to any commitments made by NATO leaders at this week’s summit and probably would have to come from the United States.
U.S. officials have already sent 3,500 Marines to Afghanistan for seven months as a stopgap measure.
But Mullen said the war in Iraq would preclude the possibility of additional troops for Afghanistan through the end of the year. About 140,000 troops are expected to remain in Iraq for several months beyond July, when the last of the additional forces sent in the Bush administration’s military buildup are set to withdraw.
Mullen’s comments reflected his long-standing concern that military commitments in Iraq have sapped the Pentagon’s ability to respond to needs in Afghanistan.
According to the Pentagon, there are 59,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, including 31,000 from the U.S., 17,000 of whom are assigned to NATO.
Appathurai, the NATO spokesman, said France had committed to adding the battalion to the 1,430 troops it has deployed in Afghanistan.
The other countries with more than 1,000 troops in Afghanistan are Britain, Germany, Canada, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland and Australia.
The alliance, Bush said in a speech Wednesday morning, was “now leading operations across all of Afghanistan.”
Expansion of NATO has become one of the most sensitive issues on the agenda -- and the opening dinner, at which it was discussed, ran two hours beyond the hour and a half allotted for it.
Although U.S. officials and others have said that Russia, which is not a member, would have no say in whether Ukraine and Georgia are invited to join NATO, Russian President Vladimir Putin has strenuously objected to their admission to the alliance.
At issue is whether the two would be given what NATO calls a “membership action plan,” intended to encourage aspirants to reform political practices and their militaries.
Appathurai said shortly before midnight: “I do not expect MAP for Georgia and Ukraine here at Bucharest.”
However, a senior Bush administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity under rules imposed by the White House, stressed that no formal decision had been made and that NATO members had agreed that the door to membership for Ukraine and Georgia “needs to remain open.”
He indicated that there was disagreement over whether the two had made sufficient reforms to enter the first phase of consideration, and whether there was enough popular support in the two countries for joining NATO.
The alliance meanwhile is poised to offer membership to Croatia, Albania and Macedonia, though Greece has threatened to block Macedonia’s bid.
Gerstenzang reported from Bucharest and Spiegel from Washington. Times staff writer Julian E. Barnes in Washington contributed to this report.