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Nobody's Paying Much Attention to NATO

Sometime soon, the Senate is expected to approve the expansion of NATO to include Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. This will greatly enlarge the foreign commitments of the United States, but it will be done with scarcely any attention from the public and not much more from the Senate.

The heart of NATO is Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty: "The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them ... shall be considered an attack against them all; and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them ... will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith ... such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area."

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In the beginning

When the treaty was signed in 1949, it covered 12 countries - all of them, except the US and Canada, in Western Europe. The treaty and the US commitment were subsequently expanded to include Germany, Greece, Turkey, and Spain.

This took place during the cold war and was part of the grand strategy to contain the Soviet Union. It worked spectacularly; rarely has there been such a successful alliance. Now the treaty and the commitment are about to be expanded further to include areas that have never been considered fundamental to American security. Are Budapest and Prague, delightful cities though they are, to be equated with Paris and Rome as worth another US war?

Supporters argue that this needs to be done to cope with post-cold-war instability in Eastern Europe and to provide a sense of security to former Soviet satellites, which have been somewhat adrift since the breakup of the Soviet Union.

It is paradoxical that with the threat removed, those who once were threatened feel the need for more protection. An unexpanded NATO showed itself capable, after hemming and hawing, to deal with instability in the former Yugoslavia. And the Partnership for Peace, devised as an interim substitute for NATO membership, should be sufficient to allay Eastern European insecurity.

The inclusion of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic is widely described as a first step toward the admission of still more members - Romania, Slovenia, Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania, among others. This is what former Secretary of State Dean Rusk used to call "a slippery slope." Where will it end?

The Senate thought long and hard before it approved the treaty in 1949. There was extensive debate, not only in the Senate but in the country at large. In 1998, there has been little debate in the Senate, the news media, or the public. It may be that after due consideration, doubts about the matter would be resolved in favor of expanding our commitments. But there hasn't been much consideration yet, and there are few signs that there is going to be. Meanwhile, word comes from Poland that it will be able to perform only 70 percent of its expected tasks in NATO if it gets in.

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The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has held hearings on the issue, but one had to be paying close attention to know this. The news media were so preoccupied with their coverage of "l'affaire Lewinsky" that they had little space or time for much else. And what space or time they did have, they devoted to the more imminent war looming in Iraq.

That the media haven't been doing their job doesn't excuse Congress for its nonfeasance. Congress postponed the start of this session from Jan. 3 to Jan. 27. Leaders talked about a resolution supporting the president on Iraq, but they couldn't decide what it should say. Then they recessed, stretching the Presidents' Day holiday from a long weekend to 10 days.

What Congress isn't doing

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has now bestirred itself feebly about NATO. But nothing is happening, either in committee or elsewhere on Capitol Hill, about other urgent issues of foreign policy - among them, additional money for the International Monetary Fund to deal with the economic crisis in Asia, delinquent dues to the United Nations (a special irony in view of the secretary-general's efforts in Iraq), and fast-track trade legislation to help American exports.

What little Congress is doing should not be done, while what should be done languishes undone. Withal, it's a sorry record.

* Pat M. Holt, former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, writes on foreign affairs from Washington.

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