Would Americans send their children to die in defense of Czechs if they came under assault from Slovaks or Bulgarians?
President Clinton believes they should if war ever threatens in Europe again - even Bosnia-style wars that pose no direct threat to the United States.
Today, Clinton will lead 15 allies here to change fundamentally the nature of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the U.S.-led military alliance that has deterred major warfare in Europe since 1949.
At Clinton’s instigation, NATO will invite three nations formerly captive behind the Soviet Union’s Iron Curtain - Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic - to join as members by 1999.
Extending NATO’s deterrent shield into the once-communist East would be unquestionably historic and arguably the largest foreign-policy achievement of Clinton’s presidency.
But it will not be accepted easily back home. A tough fight to win Senate ratification now appears inescapable. Skeptical senators and foreign-policy experts of every stripe - liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican - are warning that expanding NATO to the old Soviet border is filled with peril for the United States.
Clinton, who arrived in this Spanish capital after a two-day holiday on the nearby island of Majorca, acknowledged Monday that selling NATO expansion to the American people will be difficult.
The president went straight into a meeting with a eight-member U.S. congressional delegation present for the NATO summit, then spoke briefly to the press.
Hailing this NATO summit as “an historic mission,” Clinton said the U.S. lawmakers stressed that “we would have to pay our portion of the cost of integrating the new members. And they pointed out to me in no uncertain terms that we’ve got a sales job to do, but we think we can do it.”
Clinton believes NATO membership will help foster the fledgling democracies by integrating them more firmly into the West. But once they join NATO, alliance rules say U.S. soldiers are committed to defend them against aggression - a condition that has defined these countries’ history.
Moreover, the expansion would change NATO’s character from a military alliance among culturally compatible countries into something far more complex. NATO would be adding a fuzzy “nation-building” function to its mandate, and trying to accomplish it in increasingly difficult terrain. After these first three new members, NATO expects to add others within a few years, with Romania and Slovenia leading the way.
Tensions at the summit, in fact, will revolve around whether Romania and Slovenia should be invited to join immediately - a position pushed primarily by France.
Clinton insists they are not ready yet, but will be strong candidates for NATO admission in the near future. Neither has much experience as a democracy and neither’s military is ready for integration with sophisticated Western forces, U.S. officials believe.
Delaware Sen. Joseph Biden, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters here dismissively: “The French, God love them, are being the French.”
Clinton will visit Bucharest, Romania, on Friday in an effort to soothe any hurt feelings there that his position may have caused.
Clinton and Biden’s greater concern is getting the three-country deal through the U.S. Senate, which must ratify it by a two-thirds majority.
The critics’ concerns: NATO expansion could provoke Russian nationalists into dangerous reaction, reverse Russian willingness to eliminate nuclear weapons that menace America today, drag U.S. soldiers into messy Balkan-style border wars and ethnic hostilities, drain U.S. defense dollars and disrupt the NATO alliance itself.
The breadth and depth of those concerns was illustrated by in two recent public letters to Clinton. In one, 50 big names from the Carter and Reagan administrations, as well as prominent former senators from both parties, called the proposed new NATO “a policy error of historic proportions.”
The second letter was from a bipartisan coalition of 20 current senators, including conservatives such as Jesse Helms, R-N.C., chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee; liberals such as Paul Wellstone, D-Minn.; and moderates such as Bob Kerrey, D-Neb.
All insist that NATO expansion poses profound questions about America’s foreign commitments - questions that demand answers before the Senate will go along. Among them:
What military threat is the new NATO to counter?
How will NATO handle traditional border, ethnic, nationalist or religious disputes among its new Central European members? Will U.S. troops police them?
How will drawing a new line through Europe foster stability when it excludes nations in the Balkans and Baltics that face the sharpest threats from their neighbors? Won’t this only fuel resentments between the “ins” and the “outs”?
Who will pay the costs of expansion?
So far, White House aides offer only sketchy answers.
They assure that prospects of joining NATO encourage all potential partners to stifle rivalries and work for democratic reforms. No new dividing lines are being drawn, they insist, for those left out today will win admission in some unspecified tomorrow.
As for worries about Russia, they confidently observe that Boris Yeltsin and his team of pro-West reformers are in control for now and going along with the plan.
And the expense? The administration estimates NATO expansion will cost up to $35 billion over 12 years, mainly to improve NATO military capabilities and bring the new members up to the alliance’s standards. The U.S. share would be no more than $2 billion, or $200 million a year - cheap, administration officials say, for ensuring stability in Europe.