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Do NATO allies really favor missile defense?


BERLIN -- Europe's reaction to President Bush's plans to build a missile defense has been remarkably positive even though the allies have bitterly criticized his administration for acting unilaterally and pursuing policies that are unnecessarily aggressive.

This is a change from less than two years ago when the Clinton administration briefed the same European allies about its proposal for a missile defense -- a system that was far less ambitious than the one Mr. Bush envisions. The Europeans then were apoplectic. They questioned whether the threat from "rogue states" was even real or if missile defense was technologically feasible and claimed that moving forward would disrupt relations with Russia and divide the NATO alliance.

Few of these arguments come up among European officials today.

Instead, they seem to accept that some form of missile defense is a foregone conclusion and that, for now, they're better off cooperating with the United States rather than fighting it.

German officials, for example, once one of staunchest opponents of missile defense, now calmly claim that it is necessary. The high-level briefing team that Mr. Bush deployed recently to Germany, NATO and throughout Europe to explain the new U.S. plan was received politely and, in many cases, warmly.

So have the Europeans found religion on missile defense? Hardly.

No doubt they have been cowed by the Bush team's unyielding conviction that missile defense is necessary. At least for now, the Europeans don't want to stand in front of this moving train. They have developed what one NATO official described last week as "common sense" on the issue.

They have also been reassured by the perceived cooperativeness of the Bush approach. They repeatedly emphasize that, unlike the Clintonites, the Bush people do not use the word "national" before "missile defense," implying that the United States would try to build a system with the Europeans to protect them also.

But Europe's support is built on sand and the consensus might very well collapse and create a crisis in transatlantic relations. Mr. Bush's plans are so vague that they are all things to all people. As a European official in Brussels said, "until we know what it is you're talking about, it's very hard to be against it."

Specifics are what so alarmed the allies last year and bogged down the Clinton administration.

Europe may soon find that Mr. Bush's cooperative rhetoric is just that. There is a very real possibility that, given technological limits, the United States eventually will choose to build a defense system that only protects itself.

And, as usual, deep differences remain over how to handle Russia.

The Europeans are adamant that Moscow be brought into this process to prevent it from going off the deep end and maintain some semblance of strategic stability. This was the approach embraced by the Clinton administration, which conducted intensive talks to convince Russia about the need for missile defenses.

Although these negotiations eventually faltered, former Clinton officials now say that an agreement with Russian President Vladimir Putin on missile defense is very possible. A senior Clinton official referred to a deal as "low hanging fruit" that Mr. Bush could easily grab.

While it's true that Mr. Bush has publicly committed to work with Moscow on a "new framework" for nuclear stability, it is unclear how far he will go to bring Russia along. The early indications are that he will only, at best, make a token attempt. He seems convinced that while Russia should be kept informed, it does not need to be brought into the process. This would be a mistake.

It would not only be a missed opportunity to foster cooperation with Russia, but it would poison relations with Moscow and, perhaps even more important, put us on a collision course with our friends in Europe.

So don't be fooled: Europe's strikingly mellow reaction to Mr. Bush's plans does not mean that the missile defense debate is over. In fact, as Mr. Bush we hope understands, it is just beginning.

Derek Chollet is a research associate at George Washington University's Institute for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies. He served in the State Department during the Clinton administration.

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