BUCHAREST, Romania - President Bush renewed urgent calls Wednesday for NATO nations to allow Ukraine and Georgia to start the admission process over Russian objections and to counter Osama bin Laden's latest threats to Europe by stepping up their efforts in Afghanistan.
In a speech ahead of a summit of leaders from the trans-Atlantic alliance here this week, Bush also said that he remained committed to building a U.S. missile defense system in Europe that Moscow fiercely opposes and that the United States would not abandon Iraq with precipitous troop withdrawals.
On the eve of his last NATO summit, Bush lobbied fellow leaders on behalf of NATO expansion. He said the alliance should be open to all European democracies, for now the former Soviet republics Ukraine and Georgia but also others in the future. Arguing against the misgivings from France and Germany that opening the process to Ukraine and Georgia could overly harm relations with Moscow, a needed energy supplier, Bush said a larger NATO is not a threat to Russia.
"We must make clear that NATO welcomes the aspirations of Georgia and Ukraine for membership in NATO and offers them a clear path forward toward that goal," the president said. "NATO should welcome Georgia and Ukraine into the Membership Action Plan."
"And 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.
The speech allowed Bush to forcefully make his case on all of his top NATO agenda items, getting the stage in the summit host city virtually to himself before the meetings get underway Wednesday night. He addressed about 500 local political and business leaders in a marble hall distinctive for its two glass-topped domes. Bush also was seeing NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer before the summit's official launch at a Cotroceni Palace dinner.
But Bush and his wife, Laura, left Bucharest after the speech to spend most of the day in the Black Sea resort of Neptun, where Bush was holding talks with Romanian President Trainan Baescu, the country's pro-western leader and official host of the alliance's meeting.
In his speech, Bush praised Romania and its people for their contributions to NATO and to the war in Iraq.
"The Romanian people have seen evil in their midst and they have seen evil defeated," he said. "They value freedom, because they have lived without it. And this hard experience has inspired them to fight and sacrifice for the liberty of others."
Bush also called for NATO members to boost troop contributions to Afghanistan, where there are fears that Taliban and al-Qaida extremists are resurging. He noted that bin Laden in a recent audiotape had renewed threats to strike in Europe.
"We need to take the words of the enemy seriously," the president said. "The terrorist threat is real, it is deadly, and defeating this enemy must be the top priority of the NATO alliance."
"If we were to let up the pressure, the extremists would re-establish safe havens across the country, and use them to terrorize the Afghan people and threaten our own," he said. "Our alliance must maintain its resolve and finish the fight in Afghanistan."
On missile defense, Bush said the plans to base the shield in NATO members Poland and the Czech Republic were critical to defending against threats posed by rogue nations like Iran.
"Today, we have no way to defend Europe against this emerging threat, so we must deploy ballistic missile defenses here that can," he said.
Bush restated his position that the project is not aimed at Russia.
"The Cold War is over," he said. "Russia is not our enemy. We are working toward a new security relationship with Russia whose foundation does not rest on the prospect of mutual annihilation."
Bush will meet twice this week with outgoing Russian President Vladimir Putin who has cast doubt on the need for missile defense, but has also suggested that the United States cooperate with his country if it intends to proceed. Bush said he was willing to incorporate some of Putin's suggestions, but would not abandon the plan.