BUCHAREST - President Bush threw the NATO summit here off-script yesterday by lobbying hard to extend membership to Ukraine and Georgia, but he failed to rally support for the move among key allies.
Bush believes Ukraine and Georgia should be welcomed into a Membership Action Plan, or MAP, which prepares nations for NATO membership. The US stance contradicts German and French positions stated earlier this week, and it risked upsetting efforts to persuade Russia to soften its opposition to a missile defense array in Eastern Europe.
Bush failed to win over a consensus of NATO members in a debate at a dinner of NATO leaders, a senior German official said last night, with at least seven countries lined up against him.
A senior US official, briefing reporters, said no final decisions had been made at the dinner and all parties agreed on the importance of keeping NATO's door open to Ukraine and Georgia.
Bush, entering his last NATO summit as president, was described by the official as wanting to "lay down a marker" for his legacy and not wanting to "lose faith" with the Ukrainian and Georgian peoples and the other former republics of the Soviet Union.
As Bush did more often early in his presidency, he expressed his views candidly despite warnings from allies that he was complicating efforts to find diplomatic solutions to common problems.
Normally, summit meetings are pre-scripted, but Bush's comments added some extra interest while annoying German and French officials, who had said they would block the invitation to Ukraine and Georgia. Officials from those nations had said they believed that since neither Ukraine nor Georgia is stable enough to enter the program now, a membership plan would be an unnecessary offense to Russia.
At the dinner yesterday, that position was supported by Italy, Hungary, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, a senior German official said. Bush reportedly accepted that his position was not going to prevail, and officials were asked to find some construction overnight that would encourage Ukraine and Georgia without asking them to enter a membership plan now.
The dinner meeting ran two hours over schedule.
"The debate was mostly among Europeans," the senior administration official said, acknowledging that several allies had balked at Bush's stance.
The newer members of NATO from the Eastern Europe had supported the US position. Romanian, Estonian, and Latvian leaders emphasized that the Membership Action Plan involved difficult requirements for NATO membership, including internal political and military reforms and guarantees of civil liberties, and could take a decade to fulfill.
NATO members did appear to make progress on other issues on their agenda. They are set on inviting Croatia and Albania to join the alliance.
France offered to send a battalion of troops to eastern Afghanistan, a move that could free US forces to move south, where NATO troops are struggling to suppress the Taliban-led insurgency.
Earlier yesterday, Bush gave a rousing speech in which he stated his positions and declared that "the terrorist threat is real, it is deadly and defeating this enemy is the top priority of NATO." Such a priority, however, is not the defined goal of every member of this collective security alliance.