WASHINGTON — BEHIND the West's reluctance to quickly bring East European nations into the NATO military alliance is a simple fact of resources: United States troops in Europe that would put teeth into any such security guarantees are dwindling rapidly.
While President Clinton flies eastward across the Atlantic to chat about NATO's future, planeloads of US soldiers and equipment fly westward toward home. Bases that have housed Americans since World War II are emptying out and being turned back to European host-nation control.
With no Soviet Army threat to stare down across the concertina wire of an East-West border, there is no need for the high force levels of old. Defense budgets are plummeting all across the continent.
But the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland all have battered economies and militaries that are far short of NATO standards. If NATO security guarantees were to be anything more than scraps of paper, these Visegrad countries would need infusions of cash and forward-deployed US or Western units that just aren't forthcoming.
``I would be very uncomfortable to extend guarantees with a declining defense budget,'' said outgoing Defense Secretary Les Aspin at a Monitor breakfast last week.
The issue of burden-sharing between the US and its Western European allies has long been a source of mutual irritation, Mr. Aspin pointed out. The Congress, in particular, is always calling on wealthy allies such as Germany to shoulder more of the cost of the common defense.
Yet this burden-sharing debate would be nothing compared with the one that would arise between the US and far-poorer Eastern Europe, Aspin predicts. NATO, he said, is a pact of mutual support.
``What would they bring to the alliance?'' Aspin asked.
The half-measure Partnership for Peace would give the Visegrad nations time to improve their own military structures, according to Pentagon officials. The combined joint task forces called for in the program would develop the working relationships between officers necessary for alliance trust, these officials say.
These task forces will not necessarily be dominated by the West. In some instances, the Visegrad nations have military specialties that NATO can make good use of. The Czechs, for instance, have long had a well-developed program for chemical-weapon defense. The US made use of Czech chemical capabilities in the Gulf war.
``The Czech military is a very professional group,'' says Lawrence Di Rita, deputy director of foreign policy and defense studies at the Heritage Foundation.
Yesterday, Mr. Clinton said he was making progress in convincing leaders of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia that Partnership for Peace was a positive step. At press time, he seemed certain of winning grudging acceptance of the program in his swing through Eastern European. Polish president Lech Walesa, who has called for full NATO membership, said ``Mr. President Clinton has so many ways of convincing me that he shall definitely convince me.''
US presence smaller
Whatever happens with NATO's eventual expansion, the US presence in Europe will never be what it was, absent a resurgence of a threat on the scale of the old Soviet Union. Under the terms of its recent Bottom-Up Review, the Pentagon now plans to leave about 100,000 US service personnel based in Western Europe - a level Mr. Di Rita judges as ``the lowest we can go and make a meaningful contribution.''
At their peak in the late 1980s, there were 213,000 US Army troops in Europe alone. By the end of fiscal year 1993, that figure had been reduced to 98,000. By the end of FY1994, it is scheduled to fall to 75,000, according to a US Army official.
In 1990, Europe was host to 25 major US Air Force bases. At the end of this year, there are scheduled to be only 11. Among the locations US aircraft are vacating in 1994 are RAF Upper Heyford, in England, and Soesterberg Air Base, in the Netherlands.
No one has a good estimate for what US troop commitment would be necessary in Europe if the Visegrad countries were brought under NATO's umbrella. Threats are hard to judge. Russia may be a source of instability in the future - or it may not. Some East European nations seem more worried about each other than Moscow.
But a large number of planning, reequipping, retraining, and other logistical changes would be needed at the very least to expand NATO.
Right now, no country in the alliance has the will or means to pay for these, according to defense officials.
Another defense crunch?
In the US, a further defense crunch may be coming. Aspin's Bottom-Up Review lays out a fundamental force for the coming years that is supposed to meet the minimum US security needs.
In a new report from the Woodrow Wilson Center, defense analyst Anthony Cordesman estimates that Pentagon spending plans are underfunded by some $100 billion over the next five years if Bottom-Up Review goals are to be met.