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Bush confident NATO to back missile defense system, pledge more troops for Afghanistan
Romania Bush US ROM 5467800
U.S. President George Bush and Romanian President Traian Basescu walk together to participate in a joint press availability in Neptun, Romania Wednesday, April 2, 2008. - photo by Associated Press
    BUCHAREST, Romania — President Bush expressed confidence Wednesday that NATO will bolster its combat forces in Afghanistan and endorse a missile defense system for Europe that Russia has opposed.
    ‘‘I’m optimistic that this is a going to be a very successful summit,’’ Bush said, sitting alongside NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer hours before the 26-nation military alliance opened three days of meetings with a leaders’ dinner.
    The summit has been troubled by divisions, most notably opposition from France and Germany to giving Ukraine and Georgia a plan for eventually joining NATO. Bush indicated that was an open question because any NATO member can block it.
    Three Balkan nations — Albania, Croatia and Macedonia — are closer to joining NATO. They are hoping for invitations this week, although Greece may block Macedonia.
    ‘‘We’ll see, on enlargement,’’ Bush said. ‘‘There’s an issue with one country, in particular, but I’m optimistic that it will get solved.’’
    Bush has pushed NATO countries to commit more troops to the 47,000-strong NATO force in Afghanistan. At least 10 countries, including France, Germany, Norway and Poland, have announced they would do so. Bush would like to see more.
    ‘‘I feel good about what I’m hearing from my fellow leaders about their desire to support Afghanistan,’’ the president said. ‘‘I think if tomorrow we get clarification on troop support ... the people of Afghanistan are going to be more than grateful.’’ He did not mention any specific numbers of additional troops.
    The U.S. is the biggest contributor of troops in Afghanistan, numbering 17,000 in the NATO-led force and 14,000 in a U.S.-led contingent in eastern Afghanistan that trains Afghan forces and hunts al-Qaida. The U.S. presence is set to expand by 3,500 Marines, most of them dedicated to the NATO mission.
    Bush has spent months trying to persuade Russia that it has nothing to fear from a missile defense shield in Europe, based in Poland and the Czech Republic.
    ‘‘It looks like to me that the ingredients are coming together’’ for NATO to endorse the system, Bush said.
    Bush plans to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Sunday in the resort city of Sochi, the last such session of their presidencies. Bush is also to meet with Putin’s hand-picked successor, Dmitry Medvedev.
    The White House is holding out hopes of an agreement easing Russia’s opposition to a missile shield.
    Bush said Putin should not fear NATO, but rather should welcome the alliance because it ‘‘is a group of nations dedicated to peace.’’
    De Hoop Scheffer told Bush he echoed his optimism. He said NATO will ‘‘take a clear position on missile defense, recognizing the threat and working on the answers to that recognized threat.’’
    The NATO chief also said the alliance would publish a ‘‘vision statement’’ about NATO’S long-term commitment to Afghanistan. ‘‘We should not forget that we are on one of the front lines in a fight against terrorism in Afghanistan,’’ de Hoop Scheffer said.
    Taking note of the dispute over Ukraine and Georgia, de Hoop Scheffer said: ‘‘If these nations fulfill the criteria, and if they want to enter ... themselves through NATO’s open door, I think that door should be open.’’
    Earlier Wednesday, after meeting with Romania President Traian Basescu, Bush urged NATO allies to recognize the seriousness of the anti-Taliban mission in Afghanistan and step up with more troops for the fight.
    ‘‘We expect our NATO allies to shoulder the burden necessary to succeed,’’ Bush said, appearing alongside Basescu at a new conference on a wind-whipped Black Sea beach.
    He stepped around the dispute between member nations that have combat troops in Afghanistan’s most dangerous areas and those that are limiting their forces to the more stable north and west.
    ‘‘Nations need to take this mission seriously,’’ the president said. ‘‘It’s worth it for our own security and it’s worth it for the cause of peace.’’
    Basescu, standing with Bush after their talks at a gated seaside complex of villas amid evergreens, endorsed Bush’s call. Romania has indicated it plans to increase its presence in Afghanistan; the specifics have yet to be announced.
    ‘‘Any lack of success of NATO in Afghanistan will diminish dramatically the credibility of our organization,’’ he said through a translator.
    A standoff is expected at the summit over putting Ukraine and Georgia, two former Soviet republics, on the path toward NATO membership. Russia, who is not in NATO, vehemently objects.
    Ahead of the Bush-Putin meeting, White House officials have raised expectations the talks could produce a breakthrough on missile defense as part of a broader ‘‘strategic framework’’ to define the relationship in several areas after Bush and Putin leave office.
    ‘‘I call it an opportunity to sit down and have a good, frank discussion again,’’ Bush said. He said he will make clear to Putin that ‘‘the Cold War is over and Russia is not our enemy.’’
    Before went to Romania’s coast, he spoke to 500 political and business leaders in Bucharest about Afghanistan, missile defense, NATO and Iraq.
    ‘‘If we do not defeat the terrorists in Afghanistan, we will face them on our own soil,’’ Bush said. ‘‘Innocent civilians in Europe and North America will pay the price.’’
    He said the missile defense system was critical to defending against a ‘‘real and, in my opinion, urgent’’ threat posed by nations such as Iran.
    Bush sought to counter misgivings from France and Germany that opening the NATO membership process to Ukraine and Georgia could sour relations with Moscow, an important energy supplier. ‘‘NATO membership must remain open to all of Europe’s democracies that seek it, and are ready to share in the responsibilities of NATO membership,’’ he said.
    With nine ex-Soviet bloc countries already in the alliance, Moscow is sensitive to any further loss of influence in the former Soviet sphere.
    ‘‘What’s happening will not (go) unanswered, I assure you,’’ Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Wednesday before the State Duma in Moscow.