Bush Welcomes Seven New NATO Members

By Gerry J. Gilmore

WASHINGTON – President Bush welcomed seven new NATO members at a March 29 White House ceremony, noting the alliance "is made stronger by their presence."

Bush, accompanied by NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, congratulated the prime ministers of Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia, pointing out that their countries had once been imprisoned behind the former Soviet Union’s "Iron Curtain."

"The people of these seven nations were captives to an empire," Bush said, adding they "endured bitter tyranny. They struggled for independence."

Bush said the new NATO members have "earned their freedom through courage and perseverance" and now have joined the United States "as full and equal partners in this great alliance."

The president noted that NATO’s mission to defend free nations against aggression harkens back to when the organization was founded in 1949 as a bulwark against Soviet expansionism in Europe.

He said today’s global terrorism is "a new enemy which has brought death to innocent people from New York to Madrid."

Terrorists hate NATO and "despise our freedom," Bush said. "They fear our unity" and "seek to divide us." NATO’s 26 member nations "will face the mortal danger of terrorism, and we will overcome it together."

The president said NATO is acting to meet present-day challenges. "NATO forces are securing Afghanistan, (and) NATO ships are patrolling the Mediterranean," he said. "And NATO is supporting the Polish-led division in Iraq."

Bush applauded the anti-terror military support provided by the seven new NATO members. Bulgaria provided refueling assets during the Afghanistan conflict, he noted, and sent more than 400 troops to Iraq. Estonian and Latvian military engineers, he added, are clearing explosive mines in Iraq.

Lithuanian and Slovakian troops, Bush said, also are serving in Iraq. Romanian troops have been killed fighting terrorists in Afghanistan, he noted, while Slovenian forces are protecting the Afghan capital city of Kabul.

Bush also praised NATO aspirants Albania, Croatia and Macedonia, noting their contributions in Afghanistan or Iraq are "proving their mettle."

Later in the day at a National Press Club briefing, Romanian Prime Minister Adrian Nastase told reporters his country "was ready to share the burdens" of NATO membership.

Romanian troops also are serving in Iraq, Nastase observed, "not merely for military purposes," but also for "stabilizing the political situation and for involving themselves in a very serious way in the reconstruction of a country which has suffered a lot."

NATO’s unity and commitment to freedom "carried us to victory in the Cold War," Bush pointed out at the White House ceremony. The alliance, he said, can continue, "to advance freedom and give hope and support to those who seek to lift the yoke of isolation and fear and oppression."

"It should come as no surprise to any of us," U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld noted later in the day at a reception for the new NATO members at the Corcoran Art Museum, "that nations that so recently recovered their own freedom are at the forefront of the effort to help the Afghan and Iraqi people to recover their own freedom."