Will versus paper

January 18, 1994|By William Safire

NOW we know why Vice President Al Gore was suddenly detoured to Budapest last month, ostensibly to attend a funeral. He met secretly with Leonid Kravchuk, the Ukrainian president, to set up the most important function for President Clinton's debut on the European scene: to act as catalyst in moving Ukraine's nuclear missiles back to Russia to be dismantled.

American tax dollars cannot be better invested than in such disarmament. Although the "re-aiming" of missiles away from cities was meaningless flackery, the tripartite agreement signed by Boris Yeltsin, Mr. Kravchuk and Mr. Clinton was a triumph of good sense and skillful American diplomacy. The ballyhoo of summitry shored up the Ukrainian leader in persuading parliamentarians -- who could still queer the deal -- to trust Russia.

The worrisome part of the agreement is the hint that some private "security guarantee" was given Ukraine, perhaps by Mr. Clinton. If hostilities break out between these two glowering neighbors, the American president cannot then surprise us with anything like, "Oh, I forgot to tell you -- if Moscow nukes Kiev, I promised massive retaliation."

Should Mr. Clinton ever again face press and public in a prime-time East Room press conference, he must be prepared to say what commitments, if any, he has made to close this worthy deal.

In the cause of reducing global nuclear risk, prospective intelligence aid to Ukrainian defense may well be defensible. But the days of Rooseveltian secret agreements are gone; for our word to be our bond, we require Wilsonian "open covenants."

The question is not "How'd Clinton do?" The disarmament brokerage, aided by the promise and deadline of a summit, made the trip worthwhile. Although Mr. Yeltsin's promise to continue economic reform rang hollow when he fired his leading reformer after waving goodbye to the Americans, world aid is properly tied to ending the inflation Moscow causes by foolishly subsidizing communist-era plants.

The question is rather: "What can we do to deal with the debilitation of NATO?" Mr. Clinton thinks of Bosnia as a sad sideshow, but it has become the West's main event. On the eve of his departure for Europe, he admitted to pundits that the lifting of the arms embargo -- the dirty U.N. deed that prevents Bosnians from defending themselves -- was a dead issue.

It's dead only because he refuses to revive it. If Bosnian Bosnian Muslim soldiers could acquire a balance of firepower, invaders would have reason to negotiate a sustainable peace. If the U.S. proposed an end to the embargo in the Security Council, who would veto it -- John Major? Boris Yeltsin?

But Mr. Clinton has abandoned the "lift" end of "lift-and-strike." Why? Because the new key man among his national security advisers -- John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs -- is afflicted with the defeatist mind-set of Europeans who want the Bosnians to give up like good victims.

That reduced the American president's role to a feeble exhortation about not threatening to strike Serbian gunners by air "if you don't mean it." He has adopted the role of spectator, commenting sagely on the inaction of others, when what NATO urgently needs is a forceful push from its most powerful member. All the talk about extending Western protection eastward is so much hot air when the West refuses to act collectively to stop the plundering of a small state by its neighbors.

NATO is not a scrap of paper, nor a club where members defend their exclusivity; it is the concerted will of democratic nations to resist tyranny's aggression. That remarkable will is what worked against the Soviet threat. Presidents Bush and Clinton did not realize that the collective will to resist an invasion is bleeding to death in the Balkans.

As Ethiopia was the test of the League of Nations, Bosnia is the test not just of the U.N., but of NATO. If we do not blast besiegers; if we do not arm and train defenders -- then what assurance does Ukraine have that its borders are safe? What's the use of paper partnership to the Czechs, Balts, Poles and Hungarians, who have been betrayed before?

The way to keep a U.S. military presence in Europe is for NATO nations to manifest their will to enforce the peace. Where there is no will, there is no way.

William Safire is a columnist for the New York Times.

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