NATO in search of a leader Willy Claes: Civilian chief felled by corruption charges while facing new challenges.

October 21, 1995

Willy Claes was the first secretary-general of NATO to lead it into battle. Its bombing of Bosnian Serbs was, after 46 years of deterring Soviet aggression, the alliance's first combat.

Mr. Claes went on to a more daunting task, organization of NATO's first peace-keeping force, 50,000-strong, to enforce a peace in Bosnia as soon as one is agreed. He seemed indispensable. Instead, Mr. Claes quit to defend himself before Belgium's high court from charges of corruption.

Mr. Claes was damaged goods when chosen for the job a year ago. Scandal was breaking over alleged bribery by Italian and French firms that sold aircraft to the Belgian forces while he was economics minister negotiating the deals. But European politics demanded that a Belgian get the job.

Somehow Mr. Claes rose from the petty intrigues of Belgian coalition politics to the grand themes of NATO leadership. By the time he fell, his departure was a loss. If NATO is going to survive, its members must agree why. It needs vision as well as accommodation skills at Brussels headquarters. Most of all, it needs an America that recognizes its leadership is indispensable to the alliance but is leery, as always, about foreign entanglements.

NATO's immediate problems are to forge a credible role in Bosnia and to accommodate Eastern European demands for protection from Russia with Moscow's fears of NATO hostility. NATO's policies are forged by its 16 members' ambassadors, but a strong secretary-general is needed to force consensus, harness bureaucracy and speak for the alliance.

Scandal is engulfing Europe, a luxury afforded by the end of the Cold War. Investigations paralyze Italy and haunt France and Spain. Mr. Claes is accused of accepting payments to his political party, the Flemish Socialists, by the Italian helicopter maker, Agusta, and French airframe firm, Dassault. Mr. Claes denies all, but Belgium's parliament decided he must answer the charges.

If NATO is to deal effectively with neighbors, if it is to be respected by adversaries, it must be taken seriously by members. They will have their chance in choosing Mr. Claes' successor.

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