Bush encounters allied scepticism over missile plan

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In his debut speech to NATO, U.S. President George W. Bush today reported progress in overcoming European doubts about his missile defence plan. "People know I'm intent on doing what I think is the right thing," he declared.

Bush, emerging from nearly four hours of closed­door meetings with the leaders of NATO countries, also said the 19­nation alliance was committed to expanding its membership at a summit next year.

Of the nine countries seeking membership, Bush said, "All aspiring members have work to do." But if they stay the course, the next round of NATO enlargement can begin at the November 2002 summit in Prague, Czech Republic, Bush said.

The president reassured America's NATO partners that the United States would not precipitously withdraw its troops from the international peacekeeping forces in the Balkans, as he had signaled he would do last year during his campaign.

Embracing a statement by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, Bush said: "We came in together and we will leave together. It is the pledge of our government and it is a pledge that I will keep."

Bush spoke beside NATO Secretary­General Lord Robertson at a joint news conference.

During the leaders' private meetings, Bush had eagerly spelled out his thinking on the need for missile defence, aides said. "I think people are coming our way. But people know I'm intent on doing what I think is the right thing in order to make the world more peaceful," Bush told reporters afterward.

Robertson said Bush didn't present a specific missile defence plan or ask for the allies' support. "What the president asked for and what the president got was an open mind from the other allied countries," Robertson said.

Bush chafed at one journalist's question about critics who say Bush is jumping to deploy a missile shield before scientists are sure it can work. Those critics "are dead wrong," Bush said, his voice rising. "Of course we're not going to deploy a system that doesn't work. What good will that do?"

He acknowledged "some nervousness" among European allies about his pledge to abrogate the 1972 Anti­Ballistic Missile treaty and build a defensive system. "I understand that but it's beginning to be allayed when they hear the logic behind the rationale," Bush said. "I'm making good progress on this issue here in Europe."

Outside NATO headquarters, where the leaders met, hundreds of protesters toted signs decrying Bush's plan. One protester flew above NATO headquarters in a motorized hang­glider with a sign reading "Stop Star Wars."

Some of the allies disagreed with Bush's view that they all face a growing threat of missile attack. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder told the NATO summit there are important questions about the technical feasibility of missile defence. Plus, he said, "Russia and China need to be involved."

In contradiction to Bush's view, French President Jacques Chirac said the ABM treaty, which outlaws national missile defence, is "a pillar" of global security. He called for stepping up efforts to stop the spread of ballistic missiles "irrespective of action taken regarding the anti­missile project."

British Prime Minister Tony Blair said missile defence will be an area of "intensive negotiations" but added, "The most important thing is that Europe and America should always stick together."

Noting pointedly that the United States has no "specific proposal" yet on how it would intercept missiles, Robertson said, "NATO is embarking now on a major thinking process about the challenges we face and the best means of addressing them. These consultations will continue and they will deepen."

Bush aides were confident that he would receive backing from nations such as Hungary, Poland, Italy and Spain.

The White House didn't want a summit communique to overshadow Bush's first NATO visit. In its place, Robertson held a separate news conference to make announcements ­ among them that the entire alliance now supports adding at least one new member next year.

He didn't say which countries might be invited to join, but it was the first time Robertson made it clear publicly that putting off expansion was no longer an option.

Russia is strongly opposed to NATO expanding closer to its own borders. Just two years ago, NATO took in Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

Among the next candidates are the Baltic nations of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, which had been part of the former Soviet Union, as well as former Warsaw Pact members Romania and Bulgaria.

Earlier Wednesday, Bush spoke at the opening session of NATO's first summit meeting since April 1999, when the 19 leaders met in Washington to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the alliance's founding at the outset of the Cold War.

"Now we have a great opportunity to build a Europe whole, free and at peace, with this grand alliance of liberty at its very core," Bush said.