US president welcomes Albania, Croatia to NATO

President Barack Obama on Saturday welcomed Albania and Croatia and declared to other nations that "the door to membership will remain open."

"It is a measure of our vitality that we are still welcoming new members," Obama said of the alliance, which is marking its 60th anniversary at a summit dominated by the war in Afghanistan, reported AP.

Obama, the one doing the welcoming, is himself new to the table. He is taking part in his first NATO summit and seeking support from allied nations toward the plodding effort in Afghanistan, where the new U.S. president is sending in more troops and civilian help.

Albania and Croatia officially joined NATO this week. Obama praised them for having already deployed troops to the NATO-led force in Afghanistan, calling that commitment a sign that both countries will be strong contributors.

"We are proud to have you as allies," Obama said. He also made a pitch for Macedonia and said he looks forward to the day when it will would join the alliance, too. Macedonia's accession to NATO has been stalled over a dispute with Greece.

"The door to membership will remain open for other countries that meet NATO standards and can make a meaningful contribution to allied security," Obama said, quickly asserting his role at the summit.

Founded in 1949, NATO has added members since the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, its Soviet-dominated Cold War foe. In contrast to the alliance's previous eastward expansion, which infuriated Russia, Moscow has not objected to the inclusion of Albania and Croatia in NATO.

Earlier, in a move symbolic of NATO's unity, Obama began his Saturday by joining German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other heads of states in walking along a pedestrian bridge that links Germany and France across the Rhine River. The leaders met French President Nicolas Sarkozy at the center of the bridge, then crossed together onto the French side in Strasbourg and posed for a group photo.

In the midst of an eight-day trip abroad, Obama says it is a new day in U.S.-European relations. But he is likely to encounter the same old story of allied reluctance to send more troops to Afghanistan.

The European allies may pony up a marginal increase in forces keyed to preparations for Afghanistan's national elections in August, but the Obama administration is pinning its main hopes on getting more civilian contributions - particularly trainers for the Afghan police.

At the summit's opening on Friday, capped by a working dinner in nearby Baden-Baden, Germany, Obama promised to repair damaged relations with Europe, asked for support of his new war strategy in Afghanistan and pledged a U.S. commitment to global elimination of nuclear weapons - in the name of keeping nuclear arms out of the hands of terrorists.

The summit's co-hosts, Sarkozy and Merkel, both were quick to offer support for Obama's new Afghan strategy of sending American reinforcements and bolstering the training of Afghan forces. But they would go no farther.

"We totally endorse and support America's new strategy in Afghanistan," Sarkozy said a joint news conference with Obama after they met.

After her own talks with the president, Merkel said: "We have a great responsibility here. We want to carry our share of the responsibility militarily - in the area of civil reconstruction and in police training."

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said securing new commitments from allies would neither begin nor end with the NATO meetings, noting that nations need more time to digest Obama's revamped war strategy. Obama's national security adviser, retired Gen. James Jones, said Obama's new approach to Afghanistan, which calls for widening the approach to include more civilian effort and broadening the focus to include Pakistan, would inspire fresh involvement. "I think there's a new mood," Jones said.

A senior U.S. official traveling with Obama said Saturday that the administration expects that pledges and commitments from other NATO nations would come in over the next several weeks. Asked about the likelihood those pledges would not include combat troops, the official said alliance members would be making contributions that are "equally vital." The official spoke on condition of anonymity because no decisions had been announced.

For Saturday's closing conference, Obama and the allies were turning to vexing issues facing NATO six decades after it was formed as a bulwark against the former Soviet Union and as a spur to the kind of European integration that the co-hosts of the summit - former World War II enemies France and Germany - exemplify. Also on the agenda: applauding Sarkozy's decision to return France to full participation on NATO's military councils, after a 43-year absence.

The leaders are expected to issue a declaration Saturday formally launching a project to come up with such a "strategic concept." It would be the first such revision of the alliance's purpose and function since 1999, before the 9/11 terrorist attacks that propelled the United States into Afghanistan and a conflict that, nearly eight years later, is worsening and growing more complex.

Other topics of discussion included Russia, which strongly opposes further eastward expansion of NATO, and the prospect of accelerating arms control talks. The leaders were expected to endorse a return to normal relations with Russia, nine months after Moscow invaded Georgia.

The dominant subject, however, was Afghanistan, where there are about 38,000 U.S. troops and a like number of European, Canadian and non-NATO forces. Obama has agreed to send 21,000 more, including a contingent of 4,000 trainers announced last week.

The allies were expected to declare in a closing communique that they endorse a united way forward in Afghanistan, with more emphasis on non-military aspects of the struggle.

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