Why Pumping Up Nato May Blow Up In Clinton's Face

With Republicans on his back, President Clinton is contemplating embarking on a collision course with Russian President Boris Yeltsin over the future of European security. The White House wants a rapid expansion of the NATO alliance to cover emerging democracies in Central Europe--such as Poland and Hungary--while excluding Russia. The Administration's stance echoes the GOP Contract With America's call for enlarging NATO. Both parties are also keen on winning ethnic voters for the 1996 Presidential election.

But bowing to domestic politics on the crucial issue of European security could further erode Clinton's already badly damaged credibility overseas. On his recent trip to Russia, Clinton hardly made a peep about Moscow's crushing of Chechnya. A move to expand NATO in defiance of Yeltsin, whom Clinton has coddled throughout his Administration, would probably look like yet another Clinton waffle.

DEEPER RIFT? Such a step would also undercut Yeltsin and signal Moscow that the West intends to isolate it. That fear could strengthen the hand of powerful reactionary forces just as Russia heads toward elections for President and for the State Duma, or parliament. Expanding NATO "is an affront to Russian feelings," declares Alexey N. Mitrafonov, deputy chairman of the Duma's foreign affairs panel and a member of the ultraconservative Liberal Democratic Party.

What's more, Clinton's campaign could deepen the rift among European nations over the speed and scope of plans to broaden the security umbrella. Germany--which shares borders with the Central Europeans--wants to move at full tilt. Britain isn't eager to make new military commitments, and the new government of Gaullist President Jacques Chirac may oppose the Clinton initiative in a typically French move to blunt U.S. influence in Europe. "The debate could lead to NATO's demise, not its revitalization," frets Charles A. Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

But for now, the U.S. is pressing ahead with plans to rewrite NATO's eligibility requirements this summer so as to widen the alliance. The effort is meant to promote European integration and assuage the historical insecurity of Central Europe. But many wonder where the billions of dollars it would cost to bring the Polish and Czech militaries up to NATO standards would come from.

There seems little need to rush into a poorly thought-out policy now. With a budget 70% below its 1988 peak, the Russian military is hollow. Manpower is way down, and fighter pilots fly just 40 hours a year, compared with 225 hours in the West. "Russia won't be able to threaten Europe for a long time," says Sherman W. Garnett, a former Pentagon Russia specialist.

NO BRAKES. Although the short-term military threat may no longer exist, Russia will remain a dominant presence in the region. But it would make a lot more sense to work on integrating the Eastern economies with the West than have them spend heavily on rearming.

The White House, doesn't want to back off and make it look as if Moscow autocrats control U.S. policy. "They don't have their foot on the brakes," sniffs one U.S. official. They shouldn't. But that doesn't mean Clinton should plow ahead. He hasn't come up with a fresh new vision of European security now the cold war is over. Instead, he's letting a game of one-upmanship with the GOP push him into what could turn out to be an expensive and risky European initiative.

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