'Spend more on defence', Bush urges Europe

Facing rising violence in Iraq and Afghanistan, US President George Bush is pressing European allies for more help in a rush of high-stakes diplomacy amid growing public impatience with the war.

Facing rising violence in Iraq and Afghanistan, US President George Bush is pressing European allies for more help in a rush of high-stakes diplomacy amid growing public impatience with the war.

Bush left today for an overnight stop in Estonia ahead of a two-day Nato summit in Riga, Latvia. He then heads to Amman, Jordan, for talks Wednesday and Thursday with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki.

The president is expected to urge Nato members to increase defence spending.

The defence outlays of some Nato partners are less than half those of the United States as a percentage of gross domestic product. Aides say many US allies are ill-equipped for modern military operations.

On Sunday night, Bush was briefed in person by Vice President Dick Cheney on his trip to Saudi Arabia on Saturday for talks with King Abdullah. Cheney’s visit, and Bush’s trip to Jordan, are part of the administration’s stepped up efforts to bring stability to the region.

National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said Amman had been selected for Bush’s trip because “Jordan has been a strong ally, not only in the war on terror but also on assisting rebuilding and making Iraq realize it can govern, sustain and defend itself.”

As to comments on Sunday by Jordan’s King Abdullah that the region soon could become engulfed in multiple civil wars, Johndroe said that neither Bush nor Maliki believe the conflict in Iraq has yet degenerated into a civil war – but that bringing stability to Iraq, particularly Baghdad, was a top priority for both leaders.

The Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan 10-member commission led by former Secretary of State James Baker III and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana, is working on a set of strategies for Iraq. The New York Times reported today that the commission’s draft report recommends aggressive regional diplomacy, including talks with Iran and Syria.

Anonymous officials who had seen the draft report told the Times it does not specify any timetables for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq, although the commissioners are expected to debate the feasibility of such timetables.

Discussion of Afghanistan, where Nato has 32,000 troops battling the Taliban and working on reconstruction, is likely to dominate the alliance’s summit. But the Bush administration hopes to use lessons from Nato’s first major combat mission to make the case for broader spending.

“I think that the president will address the issue of the need for more resources for Nato and for Nato countries to spend more for defence,” said Judy Ansley, senior director for European affairs at the National Security Council. “This has been a pretty consistent theme for us.”

Nicholas Burns, the US under-secretary for political affairs and a former Nato ambassador, said Bush will make the case, as he did at Nato summits in Istanbul and Prague, for increased spending on systems and capabilities “that are absolutely necessary for success on the modern battlefield and in modern peacekeeping.”

While the US spends about 3.7% of its gross domestic product on defence, most member countries spend less than 2%, he said.

“It is still true that only seven of the Nato allies spend more than 3% of their gross domestic product on defence,” Burns said.

According to estimated figures published on Nato’s website, France spent 2.5% of its GDP on defence last year, Britain devoted 2.4%t and German expenditures were at 1.4%, down from 2% at the end of the Cold War. Canada was among the members with the lowest spending, at 1.1% of its GDP.

Analysts say the figures reflect differences in the perception of security threats, particularly in addressing terrorism.

“In the US there is the dominant perception that you can solve terrorist problems militarily and in Europe the belief is that boosting intelligence capabilities and development aid is more important,” said Josef Braml, resident fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin.

Despite US pressure, some Nato allies have continued to cut overall spending.

“Many of the European nations, particularly the smaller and medium-sized powers, are hitting the budgetary wall,” Michele Flournoy, senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington said at a briefing.

The alliance’s mission in Afghanistan has exposed some of the defence shortfalls, the analysts say.

“We have seen some decisions by European members to step up purchases of armoured vehicles and some movement toward helicopters as a result,” said Alex Nicoll, director of defence analysis at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

Nato’s Supreme Allied Commander, Gen. James Jones, said last week that calls he made to members in September for an additional 2,500 troops and more planes and helicopters for the Afghanistan mission had gone unanswered.

Jones also stressed the need for nations with troops in Afghanistan to lift restrictions that limit their deployment to particular parts of the country or prevent them from taking on certain tasks.

Leaders of member countries hope to address more of the alliance’s weaknesses at the summit, including serious transport deficiencies. Some members have agreed to buy the alliance four C-17 transport planes, according to US officials.

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