In a historic moment that was overshadowed by the attention brought to bear on Iraq, NATO invited seven Eastern European countries - three of them former republics of the Soviet Union - to join the alliance.
Germany - issued a statement shortly after their summit began yesterday that was stronger than expected but weaker than the United States had sought. It alluded to force but stopped short of an explicit call for military action should Iraq thwart United Nations weapons inspectors.
"NATO allies stand united in their commitment to take effective action to assist and support the effort of the United Nations to ensure full and immediate compliance by Iraq" with a disarmament resolution passed this month by the U.N. Security Council, the leaders said in a summit communique. "We recall that the Security Council in this resolution has warned Iraq that it will face serious consequences as a result of its continued violation of its obligations."
NATO would not take part in any attack as a group - nor was it asked to - but President Bush has appealed to individual countries to join the United States should Saddam Hussein fail to disclose and destroy Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.
Bush has spent much of the summit emphasizing that Dec. 8 could be a trigger date for war if Iraq fails to disclose all its weapons capabilities by then, as called for in the U.N. resolution. That has put him at odds with a number of U.N. members and Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who have said it could take months of inspections to determine whether Iraq is honestly disclosing its weapons stock.
But yesterday Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain sought to gloss over differences and highlight the unanimity of the statement. Blair, Bush's strongest European ally, warned that war would be the consequence if Iraq does not fully cooperate.
"I think what you'll find here at the NATO summit is a totally united determination on behalf of the international community, reflected in the U.N. resolution, that Saddam Hussein has to disarm himself," Blair said after a meeting with Bush. "I think you will find now that there is a consensus for that position virtually right across the civilized world."
Though Germany joined in the statement, it made clear that it has no intention of reversing a pledge by its chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, to sit out any attack on Iraq.
"Our position is completely clear: We will not take part in a military strike against Iraq," German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer told the Associated Press.
Even as it moved to add members, NATO acted to shed itself of its previous defensive mission - and criticism that it has become a toothless political club - by approving the creation of a rapid-deployment force of 21,000 troops to travel to world trouble spots and assist in the fight against terrorism.
The move to include the former communist countries was loaded with symbolism, given that it was nearly unthinkable little more than a decade ago. The latest nations invited though, will do little in the short run to enhance NATO's military capabilities. Most of their armies resemble little more than police forces.
All have small forces that are heavy with short-term conscripts and light on modern military equipment. Even the host Czech Republic, which has seen marginal gains in its military strength since its admission to NATO in 1999, was depending on American F-16 war jets to patrol its skies during the summit while using its aged Soviet-era planes to supplement the U.S. force.
Still, the invitations offer a more united Europe, which will move even further in that direction next month when eight former communist nations join the European Union. The NATO expansion also, at least in theory, ties the countries to the United States in an all-for-one military defense called for in the alliance charter.
"Anyone who would choose you for an enemy also chooses us for an enemy," Bush told the seven nations at the Prague Congress Center yesterday. "Never again in the face of aggression will you stand alone."
Although NATO members offered to join the United States in the war in Afghanistan - considering an attack on one NATO member an attack on all - Bush declined, saying the alliance was "limited" in what it could do and suggesting the U.S. military was better off going it with selected allies. Neither has he asked NATO as a whole to join in any attack on Iraq, fearing the aged and cumbersome force would be more constraining than helpful.
Yesterday, in approving the creation of the rapid-deployment force, NATO Secretary-General Lord Robertson addressed the alliance's shortcomings. He said the deployment force marked the creation of a military arm that will enable NATO to answer calls anywhere in the world. The force is to be operational by October 2004.
Bush's call for NATO members to improve their militaries is a tall order given their economies and the shape of their troops. That is especially true for the newest members, who will be formally admitted in 2004 after ratification by the U.S. Senate and the parliaments of NATO members.
"The whole of the armed
forces in any of these countries could not be compared with any Western military power in terms of equipment or anything else," said Phillip Mitchell, ground forces analyst for the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "It's going to take quite an effort to integrate in every aspect, including communications, equipment and training."
Slovenia, for example, has no air force and no navy, although its army has an air element that includes about 250 people. Its ground forces rely almost exclusively on T-55 tanks, the Yugoslav version of the Russian T-72, built in the mid-1950s, making them a generation older than those in the fleets of most NATO countries.
The country has a total of about 9,000 military personnel, and about half of them are seven-month conscripts. The United States, by contrast, has a volunteer professional force of about 1.3 million troops.
Of the countries poised to be admitted, Romania offers the largest number of troops - about 99,000 - but also is strapped with aged equipment. None of the countries has communications equipment that enables it to speak with its U.S. or British counterparts, although that is a problem with many of the NATO countries.
On the eve of the summit, Bush encouraged the other NATO countries to pull their weight by spending more on military capabilities. He said, and NATO leaders agreed yesterday, that the alliance needs to be able to fight side-by-side better, to increase special operations forces and to build a larger arsenal of precision bombs.
"Every member must make a military contribution to this alliance," he said. "Never has our need for collective defense been more important."