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NATO backs U.S. defense plan

Times Staff Writer

With President Bush headed for what is likely to be his final summit conference with President Vladimir Putin, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization on Thursday provided the show of support Bush sought for the missile defense plan the Russian leader has vehemently opposed.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said NATO had produced “a breakthrough document” in which the alliance acknowledged that it was necessary to erect a defense against “the threats of the 21st century.”

The 26-nation organization also renewed its political and military support for the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan; formally invited two new members, Croatia and Albania; and opened the door to eventual membership for Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

When Albania and Croatia are admitted next year, it will bring to 12 the number of members added in the nearly two decades since the end of the Cold War. Considering also the other two Balkan states on the path toward membership, NATO continues to demonstrate a dramatic evolution eastward.

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Figuratively and literally, it is moving away from its post-World War II roots as an alliance of the United States, Canada and the major powers of Western Europe erecting a defense network against the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact.

A day after it became clear that the alliance would balk at meeting Bush’s demand to put Ukraine and Georgia on the first rung of a ladder intended to lead toward membership, it instead said that the countries would eventually be allowed in. NATO also said its foreign ministers would consider the matter again in December.

The summit marking the alliance’s 59th anniversary dealt a setback to Macedonia’s hope that it would be admitted with Albania and Croatia. NATO actions require the consent of all members, and Greece objects to offering Macedonia a spot under its current name, which it shares with a region of Greece.

“We regret that we were not able to reach consensus today to invite Macedonia to join the alliance,” Bush said. “Macedonia has made difficult reforms at home. 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.”

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The Macedonian foreign minister, Antonio Milososki, who walked out of the meeting, told reporters the decision reflected a “lack of vision for the long-term stability in the [Balkans] region.”

Throughout the day, Rice, White House national security advisor Stephen Hadley and other U.S. officials sought to present the summit as an unqualified success for the administration. At times it was easier than others.

The support for the missile defense system, which the administration wants to build in the Czech Republic and Poland, went the administration’s way.

“There has been, over 10 years, a real debate as to whether there is a ballistic missile threat,” Hadley said. “That debate ended today.”

In a sign that the project was moving forward, the United States and the Czech Republic said during the summit that they had completed negotiations on a missile defense agreement that would be signed soon.

In another step that U.S. officials applauded, France, as expected, said it would close a gap that has existed for four decades, rejoining NATO’s military network.

But on the question of whether to start Ukraine and Georgia on the road to NATO membership, Bush had lobbied hard against German and French opposition, and did not get the certain step forward he sought. German Chancellor Angela Merkel led the argument that the countries had not done enough to reform their politics and military forces.

Putin, who arrived here Thursday night to take part in a Russia-NATO meeting today, also opposes giving membership to the two countries on Russia’s southern border that were part of the Soviet Union.

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Bush, who is flying today to Zagreb, Croatia, for an overnight visit, is scheduled to meet with Putin this weekend at the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi, with the missile defense issue one of the top items on the agenda.

Putin is to leave office May 7, and Bush is also scheduled to meet with his successor, Dmitri Medvedev.

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james.gerstenzang @latimes.com

Special correspondent Julia Damianova contributed to this report.


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