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Opinion: The NATO Trap

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, December 22, 1996; Page C07

The Clinton administration's determined effort to bring Poland and other Central European nations into NATO before the end of the century crosses its first crucial threshold in 1997. The American public's innate common sense may yet pull Washington back from a major foreign policy mistake. But time grows short.

President Clinton has promised to expand NATO without changing the essential nature of history's most successful military alliance and without contributing significantly to a new era of military confrontation with Russia.

The Clintonites would square the world's most dangerous geopolitical circle, by offering Washington's most dangerous strategic policy: one without any possible drawbacks for anyone. They are 1990s equivalents of Lyndon B. Johnson promising to fight the war in Vietnam without slowing American economic growth, or of Ronald Reagan vowing to balance the budget while cutting taxes and greatly expanding defense spending.

As with those pledges, the individual features of the NATO enlargement plan are each desirable and valid. Most Americans rightly want to provide security guarantees and hope to those abused by four decades years of Soviet occupation; to keep whole the military organization that deterred Soviet aggression and maintained U.S. leadership in Europe; to integrate a demilitarizing Russia into the family of peaceful industrial democracies.

But like those earlier pledges, Clinton's plan contains mutually exclusive elements. If the administration does not choose among them, events and other nations will.

On this issue emotions rather than analysis drive the administration. The president has made an emotional commitment to helping out those Central Europeans who have told him that only NATO membership can provide stability for those who live in the historic killing ground caught between Russia and Germany.

That commitment was apparent in Clinton's recent moving evocation of the Central European childhood of his secretary of state-designate, Czech-born Madeleine Albright. The chance for Clinton to tell the narrative of her birth in and flight from Central Europe must have added substantially to the many advantages the president saw in naming Albright.

But emotions — as opposed to instincts — are usually poor guides to sound U.S. foreign policy. American policymakers once again risk being intoxicated by the politics of liberation, in which euphoria and hope crowd out or postpone clear-eyed, critical evaluation of American interests.

An important precedent comes to mind: When Africa was freed from European colonialism and white rule in the 1960s, the continent's history of oppression and victimization clouded initial assessments of Africa's role and potential in international affairs. The worthiness of the cause of independence created a constituency prepared to overlook or deny the obvious weaknesses and internal problems of most African states.

The cases of Africa and Central Europe are obviously quite different. But it is the reaction in the West — the celebration of the politics of liberation as the basis for policy — that is strikingly similar, and dangerous.

At a recent debate on NATO expansion staged at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, former assistant secretary of state Richard Holbrooke, who was one of the architects of this policy, was pressed to explain why Clinton had announced during the presidential campaign that the first candidates — the Czechs, the Poles and the Hungarians — would be admitted to full membership in NATO in 1999.

Holbrooke's answer was that 1999 would be the 10th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the 50th anniversary of the founding of NATO. The timing of a momentous strategic decision by the United States is being determined by anniversary dates and a chance to celebrate them, Holbrooke's remarks clearly indicated.

Another way of looking at Holbrooke's explanation is for the administration to recognize now that there is nothing magic about the 1999 date. Too much remains to be done in reconciling what kind of NATO — and what kind of Russia — will exist once expansion is complete.

The Russians want a share in decision-making in NATO operations as their price for swallowing expansion. The Czechs and others are demanding that their new NATO transform itself from history's most successful war-deterring organization into a much looser collective security grouping. In the United States, initial discussion of expansion has included calls for the elimination of the NATO treaty's Article 5, which defines an attack on one member as an attack on all.

Americans are in fact only beginning to become aware that their president intends to commit them in July to extending the nuclear umbrella that goes with full NATO membership to Poland's eastern frontier. Billions will have to be spent to make credible an expanded version of deterrence against aggression from Russia — a power Clinton still treats as an American strategic partner and aids economically.

There should be no rush to judgment at the Clinton-orchestrated NATO summit in Madrid in July. The American public needs time to sort out the contradictions of Clinton's proposed changes to NATO, which must be ratified by the Senate. And so does the administration.

In Africa, policies built on celebrating liberation led to disillusionment and disengagement. In Central Europe, they can lead to disaster.

© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company

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