NATO opens a two-day summit in Prague that will see invitations to join the alliance issued to seven countries stretching from the Baltics to the Balkans. NATO's enlargement is being overshadowed by President Bush's call for the allies to help disarm Saddam Hussein if the Iraqi leader refuses to give up what Washington says are his weapons of mass destruction.
It will be the alliance's biggest-ever expansion. The three Baltic states, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, two countries from central Europe, Slovakia and Slovenia, and the Balkan nations of Bulgaria and Romania will all be invited to join NATO in 2004.
But enlargement is just a formality. For months now, the accent of preparations for the summit has been on re-tooling NATO from a collective defense alliance aimed at containing the old Soviet Union to a more flexible organization able to deal with today's major security challenges. Terrorists who can strike anywhere, anytime and rogue states possessing or seeking chemical, biological or nuclear weapons. Even that priority has now been superceded by what to do about Iraq.
NATO officials say that U.S. diplomats have been contacting the other 18 allies as well as the seven future members to assess their willingness to join in military action against Iraq.
Those officials say the United States wants a statement on Iraq to come out of this summit. But they also say that the language in the final communique, given the anxiety of many allies, is likely to be limited to backing the U.N. resolution that sent weapons inspectors back to Baghdad. That resolution warns of "serious consequences" if Iraq fails to comply with inspectors' demands.
Former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott says the allies' response to U.S. pressure for military action as a last resort could determine how Washington deals with the Iraq issue.
"The Iraq issue has become kind of the next litmus test for whether the United States has made a fundamental shift away from working with others toward doing everything alone," Mr. Talbott said.
Mr. Bush has played down any suggestion that the United States will act unilaterally, saying he will assemble a so-called coalition of the willing to help him disarm Saddam Hussein if need be.
Some allies, especially Germany, oppose any war in Iraq, but others have indicated that they will go along with any U.S. move to disarm the Iraqi leader if he should fail to cooperate fully with the weapons inspectors. Czech President Vaclav Havel, for instance, has suggested that NATO, as an alliance, should consider joining any Iraq campaign.
Retired U.S. Army General Wesley Clark, a former NATO military chief, supports that idea and says it could be a test for how the alliance faces new challenges.
"We can even use a NATO-led force, if necessary, to attack Iraq, coming through the mountains between Turkey and Iraq and actually moving into northern Iraq," General Clark said. "And I would hope we will be able to do that."
NATO Secretary General George Robertson says Iraq would be discussed over lunch Thursday by the alliance's 19 leaders. But when asked if NATO would support U.S. military action against Iraq, he would only say it is not wise to cross bridges before you come to them.