Bush insists missile defence system will go ahead

As the US pours its diplomatic efforts into winning over allies, the President makes it clear he has already made up his mind
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The Independent US

President George Bush claimed yesterday to be winning the argument over contentious US plans for a defensive missile shield, but insisted that he is "intent" on pursuing the programme whatever the result of consultations with America's allies.

On his first visit to Nato headquarters in Brussels, the US President brushed aside widespread reservations over the "son of Star Wars" project after winning the implicit support of a clutch of European allies including Britain, Spain and Italy.

Germany and France expressed concrete reservations but there was no confrontation during Mr Bush's four-hour summit with Nato leaders.

After a faltering European debut in Spain on Tuesday, a more confident Mr Bush said the logic of his arguments was beginning to prevail and claimed that there was a "new receptivity to missile defence as part of a new framework". He was, he added, "making good progress on this issue in Europe" and reservations were being "allayed".

But the President, who has embarked on a round of consultations with allies made it clear that his mind is already made up. "I think people are coming our way," Mr Bush told journalists, "but people know I'm intent on doing what I think is the right thing in order to make the world more peaceful."

Transatlantic differences were kept within diplomatic bounds. France has led the opposition to the American plans on the basis that it will tear up the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty which the French President, Jacques Chirac, described as "a pillar" of the international framework.

In his formal declaration Mr Chirac appeared to soften his opposition although he later told journalists that the missile defence proposals were a "fantastic incentive for proliferation".

That contrasted sharply with President Bush's dismissal of the ABM agreement on Tuesday as a "relic" of the Cold War which impedes research on missile defence systems.

Mr Bush appealed to allies to forge a new security environment in which Russia would be a partner rather than an enemy and said that a reduction in America's nuclear arsenal could accompany the deployment of a missile shield.

Yesterday's gathering, billed as a "getting to know you" session, took no decisions and, with no formal blueprint for a missile defence project ­ nor any proof that the scheme will be technologically feasible ­ Mr Bush could hardly expect formal endorsement.

Lord Robertson of Port Ellen, Nato's secretary general, argued that "what the President asked for and what the President got was an open mind from the other allied countries".

Several leaders went further including Tony Blair who praised Mr Bush's "articulate" presentation of US concerns over the threat from so-called "rogue states".

Mr Bush also laid down the law over the alliance's investment in military hardware, arguing that "the decline in defence spending among Nato countries must be reversed". That echoed concerns from Lord Robertson who underlined the failure of the 19 countries to meet targets laid down two years ago.

However, there was more consensus on Europe's plans for a rapid reaction force which the US President endorsed.

"The US would welcome a capable European force, properly integrated with Nato, that provides new options for handling crises when Nato chooses not to lead," he said.

On the Balkans, Mr Bush allayed fears of a unilateral US troop withdrawal, repeating the commitment of his Secretary of State, Colin Powell, who said "we went in together and we will come out together". And the alliance pledged to embark on a fresh round of enlargement at its summit next year; while the number of new states has not been specified there is now "no zero option".

While yesterday's meeting was short of political pyrotechnics there was a reminder outside Nato headquarters of the opposition to Mr Bush's policies. Thirty-one Greenpeace activists, including the pilot of a motor-driven parachute, were arrested during protests against the President's environmental and defence policies. Mr Bush was also delayed by a protest at Brussels airport.

Mr Bush is facing a greater test of his powers of diplomacy when he arrives in Gothenburg today for a European Union summit at which the environment will be top of the agenda.

He has angered European governments by repudiating the Kyoto protocol on global warming. Even staunch allies such as Mr Blair may not take Mr Bush's side over the issue.