The NATO secretary-general, Willy Claes, resigned bitterly Friday, a day after his former Belgian parliamentary colleagues voted to let prosecutors charge him in a bribery scandal over defense contracts signed when he was a Belgian Cabinet minister in the late 1980s.
Angrily insisting that he was “totally innocent,” Claes said in Brussels Friday afternoon that he was resigning for the good of the 16-nation alliance after eight months of trying to do a difficult job and defend himself at the same time.
“Nobody can deny that I no longer have enough credibility to ensure the leadership of the alliance,” he said. “Is there another word than ‘political murder?”’
On both sides of the Atlantic, governments agreed that Claes (pronounced klahss) had done the right thing by leaving.
And they began looking for a successor to help guide the alliance through the complexities of taking on a huge peacekeeping mission in Bosnia and taking in new members from Central Europe without reviving the divisions of the Cold War.
“On paper, the NATO secretary-general has no real power except to conduct meetings,” one diplomat said, “but the reality is that he plays a key part in the decision making and, if he is good, he can influence things enormously.”
Francois Heisbourg, a former director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said the secretary-general could “suggest compromises, float ideas, and influence the debate and direction of the alliance.”
“This is very important today, because NATO still doesn’t have a clue about its reason for being in the wake of the Cold War,” Heisbourg said.
Claes, with strong support and encouragement from the United States, shepherded the alliance into crucial decisions to lay out a blueprint for future expansion into Eastern Europe and to plan a 50,000-member peacekeeping force in Bosnia to replace the United Nations after a peace settlement is achieved.