Congressional debate comes up short on key issues

March 12, 1998|By George F. Will

WASHINGTON -- Congress is showing astonishing unseriousness regarding two serious matters.

Its almost flippant handling of possible Puerto Rican statehood violates Thomas Jefferson's rule against undertaking large steps on slender majorities. And regarding NATO expansion, there has been neither presidential explanation nor Senate debate sufficient to produce a meaningful public majority of any sort.

The House of Representatives voted 209-208 to begin a process that could culminate in statehood for the island, which, in a 1993 nonbinding plebiscite, favored the status quo over statehood 48.6 percent to 46.3 percent. Alaskans and Hawaiians overwhelmingly favored statehood in the 1950s.

What would be the monetary costs of statehood for the United States and Puerto Ricans? That is hard to say. Puerto Ricans, although U.S. citizens, do not pay federal income taxes, and the island's economy benefits substantially from business tax breaks that would end with statehood.

The per-capita income of the 3.8 million Puerto Ricans is less than half that in the poorest state (Mississippi).

Saved by the Senate

All but 43 of 226 Republicans voted against the measure that could alter Puerto Rico's status. However, some GOP leaders were in full pander mode, subscribing to the wonderfully nutty notion that Latino voters in, say, South Central Los Angeles will think kindly of Republicans who look kindly on Puerto Rican statehood. Fortunately, the Senate is disinclined to act on this any time soon, so there will be time for real deliberations to condition public opinion with the following considerations.

Every president since Harry S. Truman has affirmed Puerto Rico's right to choose statehood. But after three decades of surging immigration, legal and illegal, there is mounting anxiety about the fraying of American culture by government policies that encourage the Balkanization of society into grievance groups organized around race and ethnicity. So, in 1998, nothing mandates national agnosticism about the best status for Puerto Rico.

The question is not whether Puerto Ricans, several millions of whom live on the mainland, belong in U.S. society. They do. Rather, the question is whether Puerto Rico -- where less than 20 percent of the population speaks English, the carrier and conditioner of American culture -- belongs in the federal union. Americans should say diverse things, but should be able to say them in a common language, a prerequisite for universal participation in the national conversation.

Surely this deserves a more searching debate than it has had. So does NATO expansion.

Meaningless polls purport to demonstrate substantial public support for extending a U.S. security commitment eastward to the Polish-Ukrainian border, and beyond. But not one American in 100 can say which nations (Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic) are to be brought into NATO. Not one in 100,000 knows that five more -- Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovenia and Romania -- have been invited to apply for membership next year.

Estimates of the costs of expansion have varied wildly, and have marvelously shrunk as the Senate vote on amending the NATO treaty has drawn near. But never mind the monetary costs. Think instead of the suddenly blurry purposes of the new NATO.

President Clinton says it would "advance the security of everyone -- NATO's old members, new members and nonmembers alike." That does indeed include everyone.

An evolving NATO

Does NATO exist to defend the territory of NATO members or the interests of those members? If the former, from what threat? If the latter, who defines those interests?

The continuing difficulties of dealing with Russia regarding Iraq give an ominous cast to the new arrangement whereby there is Russian representation at NATO's military planning levels.

If Europe is to be more than a geographic expression, and if NATO is to be its primary political-military incarnation, watch the Balkans, scene of NATO's first active use of forces and first "out of area" operation. One reason for putting troops into Bosnia was to forestall the need for troops in Kosovo. But suddenly it is at a dangerous boil: two NATO members -- Greece and Turkey, which hardly need a new reason to become antagonists -- could become armed antagonists.

How will the rapidly evolving NATO react, and how will it be regarded by the Clinton administration, fresh from farming out Iraq policy to others? (It is one thing for an administration to find United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov useful for U.S. foreign policy, and quite another thing to make them indispensable.)

Surely Congress could deliberate long enough to acquaint the public with such complexities, before taking steps that could cause the (51?) stars and stripes to be unfurled over encampments in places of which the public has never heard.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 3/12/98

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