Sex scandal puts NATO expansion on hold indefinitely in Washington

March 25, 1998|By Linda Chavez

THE U.S. Senate has put on temporary hold one of the most momentous foreign-policy decisions since the end of the Cold War -- the expansion of NATO to include three former Soviet satellites: Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

Yet Americans seem largely unaware of or indifferent to the issue, which the Senate briefly considered last week. Chalk up yet another casualty to the never-ending Clinton scandals. What could allegations of presidential sexual misconduct and obstruction of justice possibly have to do with the debate over NATO expansion? Unfortunately, plenty.

Most Americans don't spend much time thinking about foreign policy, except during crises or war. It's usually up to the president to make Americans pay attention by speaking directly to them, as President Clinton did when he wanted to send troops to Haiti and Bosnia, or former President Ronald Reagan did when he wanted Congress to provide aid to the contras fighting the communist regime in Nicaragua.

Traditionally, the president provides the direction and leadership in foreign policy, and Congress plays a supporting -- or, sometimes, opposing -- role.

But Mr. Clinton is in no position to rally the American people on anything right now. He's too busy fending off charges that he groped Kathleen Willey in the Oval Office and asked Monica Lewinsky to lie about whether she had sex with him. So when the Senate finally takes up NATO expansion, little help will be available from this White House in getting Americans to pay attention.

Because the Clinton administration and a large, bipartisan majority in the Senate favor NATO expansion, this lack of focus from the voters probably won't affect the final vote -- but it's dangerous nonetheless. And I say this as someone who supports extending NATO membership to the new democracies of Central Europe.

Keeping the peace

For nearly 50 years, NATO has kept the peace in Europe and has been the linchpin of U.S. strategic defense. NATO commits each of its current 16 member-nations to defend an attack on any one member as an attack on all. If Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic are admitted to NATO, U.S. troops one day may be asked to risk their lives to defend these nations against an attack, just as we are now committed to defending Britain, France, Germany and the other 12 NATO members.

This is no minor matter. It deserves the most careful consideration, not just by our elected leaders but by the people themselves. But almost no one seems to be paying attention.

Some supporters seem willing to push through the Senate quick vote on ratification of the NATO treaty amendment granting membership to the three former Warsaw Pact nations in the hopes that the issue won't sink in an isolationist quagmire.

But that instinct is wrong. Surely we learned from our experience in Vietnam that we cannot let our political leaders make decisions about sending troops to fight in foreign wars unless the American people are fully informed of the implications of those decisions and back them unequivocally.

Expanding NATO membership entails costs, both immediate and future. Estimates of the increase in our defense budget needed to accomplish the change range from a low of $1.5 billion from the administration to a high of $125 billion from the Congressional Budget Office. The differences in these estimates are hardly insignificant, and the American people deserve to know ahead of time how much the United States is committing to spend.

Even more importantly, Americans need to be apprised of the potential risks this undertaking entails. Imagine a scenario 10 or 20 years hence with a revitalized and hostile Russian and Belarussian army advancing toward neighboring Poland, while Yugoslavia attacks Hungary, in a kind of pincers movement to sever them and the Czech Republic from their Western allies.

No doubt this scenario would be far less likely to unfold if Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic were NATO members. But it is also true that should an attack occur, the United States would have to respond as if the attack were aimed directly at it.

Protecting friends

The end of the Cold War dramatically reduced the risk of a major war for the United States, but it did not make the world entirely safe -- which is why we still need NATO.

The United States is strong enough to extend its protective shield, through NATO, to the new democracies in Central Europe, but I suspect few Americans have even considered the question.

It's up to the president to make the case for NATO expansion to the American people. If he can't fulfill this most basic obligation, he's cheating the nation of the leadership it deserves.

Linda Chavez is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 3/25/98

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