NATO defense ministers have agreed to radically overhaul the alliance's military command structure, in an effort to adapt it to new threats, and prepare it for operations outside its traditional European theater. But the meeting was clouded by a U.S. warning that NATO may have to stop meeting at its Brussels headquarters because of a Belgian war crimes law that has been used to target senior U.S. officials.
The warning from U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld came at the end of a day of what he and other ministers called significant accomplishments by the alliance. NATO decided to cut the number of its bases across Europe by 40 percent as part of a drive to make the alliance more flexible to 21st Century threats. But Mr. Rumsfeld said the controversial law that allows Belgian courts to try foreigners for alleged war crimes, wherever they are committed, threatened Belgium's role as NATO's host.
Noting that a series of current and former U.S. officials, ranging from Iraq war commander General Tommy Franks to former President George Bush, have been subject to lawsuits under the law, the U.S. defense secretary said Washington will oppose funding a new $350-million state of the art headquarters for NATO in Brussels.
"It would be obviously not easy for U.S. officials, or potentially coalition officials, civilian or military, to come to Belgium for meetings," he said. "And, therefore, my position and our position is that it does not make much sense to build a new headquarters, if you couldn't come here for meetings."
The Belgian parliament has already approved changes in the law that would transfer any complaints against officials from democratic nations to the country of the accused. But Mr. Rumsfeld appeared to be disturbed by the very idea of what he called spurious charges by politicized prosecutors.
Still, Mr. Rumsfeld was full of praise for NATO, saying it has moved forward to meet the challenges of the 21st Century. He called decisions to overhaul the alliance's command structure and speed up the establishment of a rapid response force enormously important.
The decisions came as the alliance emerged from deep divisions over the Iraq war that pitted the United States and most of its partners against such European heavyweights as France and Germany, which opposed the conflict.
NATO Secretary General George Robertson says the alliance has weathered what he called its spring storms, and emerged stronger and more united than before. He cited a number of recent decisions by the alliance to expand its scope of operations beyond Europe.
'NATO's decisions to assist Turkey, to take over the international security assistance force in Kabul and to help Poland in Iraq could not have been made by a disunited alliance," said George Robertson. "They were made by a transformed NATO, willing and able to meet today's threats from wherever they may come."
Mr. Robertson lauded Spain for agreeing to contribute a brigade to a Polish-led multinational division that will take charge of peacekeeping activities in central Iraq. Three Latin American nations will be part of the Spanish brigade, while the Polish brigade will include troops from five other East European countries. Ukraine is contributing a third brigade to the force, which will be supported logistically by NATO.