London (CNSNews.com) - NATO members went into an emergency meeting Monday after three European countries blocked a plan to place surveillance planes and Patriot missiles in Turkey in advance of military action against Iraq.
Washington requested the defensive deployments last month, but France, Germany and Belgium vetoed the action shortly before a Monday morning deadline.
Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel had earlier indicated that his country would veto the proposal, drawing sharp criticism from U.S. officials. The three countries have expressed opposition to military action against Iraq and argued that placing defenses in Turkey would put the alliance on a war footing.
Secretary of State Colin Powell told Fox News on Sunday that he could not fathom how any country could oppose the plan.
"I think it is inexcusable on the part of those countries and I hope they will think differently by the time they have to make a judgment tomorrow," he said.
In an interview for Italy's La Repubblica newspaper, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld took a similar line.
"For me it's truly shameful," he said. "Turkey is an ally. An ally that is risking everything."
"How can you refuse it help?" he wondered.
U.S. ambassador to NATO Nicholas Burns said the alliance faced a "crisis of credibility."
After the French and Belgian veto action, Turkey made the first-ever request under Article 4 of the NATO treaty, which allows for emergency talks when any member country believes that "the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the parties is threatened."
"This is undoubtedly a difficult situation," NATO Secretary General Lord George Robinson said Monday. "But allies have had differences before and will have more in the future. What matters is to arrive at a consensus and we will."
Robinson said the fundamental disagreement was on the timing of defensive action, rather than about whether defensive deployments should take place at all.
"The question still is not 'if' but 'when' to begin the planning," he said.
"We have a difficult issue ... which concerns solidarity with one ally, Turkey," he said. "It is not related to any possible participation by NATO in a military operation against Iraq."
"I am not trying to minimize the issue. It is serious," Robertson said. "I'm confident we'll reach agreement but I can't say when it will happen."
Analysts said the crisis put the future viability of the transatlantic alliance into serious doubt.
Daniel Keohane, a research fellow with the London-based Center for European Reform, said the action by European countries "drives another nail into NATO's coffin."
"NATO already had a number of political problems, including the fact that the United States largely bypassed the alliance during the conflict in Afghanistan," Keohane said. "This time it's the Europeans who have driven in the nail."
"Usually when a country asks for help, it gets it," he said.
Turkey will now have to negotiate bilateral agreements with the United States, Britain and the Netherlands to meet its defense needs, a process that Keohane said is more awkward than the NATO route.
"It's the political message that is most relevant in this situation, however," he said. "It's another point in a process where we see NATO becoming less relevant."
The alliance, Keohane said, is dying a "slow, painful death."
Chris Wright, head of the New Security Issues program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, said Turkey's invocation of Article 4 will put France, Germany and Belgium in a tight spot.
"This is a pretty embarrassing situation for the alliance," he said. "It's difficult to know what's behind this, why these countries raised objections."
"What it has certainly done is made the United States very mad indeed and has confirmed the U.S. administration's view that dealing with multilateral institutions is something that should be avoided if at all possible," Wright said.
Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.