WASHINGTON — Even as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright tries to ease Russian objections to the expansion of NATO, the Clinton administration faces lingering concerns on Capitol Hill over the plan to admit former Soviet-bloc states to the trans-Atlantic military alliance.
Admission of new NATO members, the first of which will be named at a summit in Madrid this July, requires ratification by two-thirds of the Senate. While support in Congress has been strong, White House officials concede they still owe answers to critical questions before many lawmakers commit to pushing NATO to Russia's doorstep.
"We do not regard this as a cakewalk," says a senior administration official who requested anonymity. "We have to answer legitimate questions about Russia, about the cost, and about America's role."
That process will begin when the White House releases in coming days a report requested by Congress that addresses, for the first time, specifics about the costs and shape of expansion of the 16-member alliance. A well-informed Washington source expects the report to peg the United States share of enlargement costs at between $200 million and $250 million a year over 10 years, with other members sharing the rest. That amount is far less than many analysts had projected and indicates that NATO will not fund massive military modernization programs for new members.
The senior administration official declined to discuss the report. But he says,"We have always said that NATO enlargement is not directed against any particular country. That is not a formula for a massive buildup."
The White House effort to ensure Senate ratification more than a year before the actual vote - expected in mid-1998 - underscores the enormous stakes NATO expansion holds for the US and for President Clinton.
NATO enlargement is shaping up as the most sweeping US foreign policy initiative of the post-cold-war era. Analysts say the administration's failure to win Senate approval would kill the initiative, threaten NATO cohesion, humiliate the US, and shatter international confidence in Washington's commitments to preserving stability in Europe and other critical regions of the globe.
Jeremy Rosner, an analyst at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, likens a Senate rejection of NATO enlargement to the collapse of the League of Nations. The administration, Mr. Rosner says, "must do absolutely everything to ensure that it passes."
Senate rejection would also be a personal blow to Mr. Clinton. NATO expansion offers him a place in history as the architect of a new security arrangement designed to protect new market democracies and to avert a return of the age-old tensions that led to US intervention in two European wars this century.
NATO expansion "is consistent with the president's desire to leave some mark on history and with the values he has expressed as underlying his foreign policy," notes Stanley Sloan, an expert on European affairs at the Congressional Research Service.
At first glance, Senate ratification seems to be a foregone conclusion. Majority Republicans have called on Clinton to admit new members before the current 1999 deadline. Last July, the Senate passed 81 to 16 the "NATO Enlargement Facilitation Act," which endorsed enlargement and awarded $60 million to the leading candidates for the first round of admissions - Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic - to help prepare their militaries.
While polls show many Americans are ambivalent on the issue, NATO enlargement is backed by significant numbers, including voters of Eastern European descent in key states. Finally, the opposition is not well organized and its main spokesman, former Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, has retired.
But analysts say many key lawmakers still harbor reservations about the initiative that, left unanswered, could swing enough of them against the idea. "There are still distinct scenarios by which this could fail," says Rosner.
Analysts say support could be weakened by fears of a confrontation with Russia, which views NATO expansion as a new Western strategy of "containment." Critics say such frictions could bring to power in Moscow hard-liners who would halt democratization and divert resources from economic reforms into renewed military rivalry with the West.
Administration officials say expansion is not aimed at Moscow, although former Soviet satellites see NATO membership as a defense against Russian expansionism. The White House apparently hopes proposals to ease Russian objections will also soothe doubts in Congress. They include an accord requiring NATO to consult with Moscow - but denying Russia a role in alliance decisionmaking - and an undertaking not to station nuclear weapons on the territories of new members.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright took to Moscow yesterday offers of a NATO-Russian peacekeeping brigade and sweeping reductions in conventional arms in Europe. She also carried assurances that enlargement would not boost NATO forces near Russia's borders.
The White House also hopes its soon-to-be released report will answer congressional concerns over the cost of expansion. Some forecasts put the cost to the US at upwards of $1 billion a year, an enormous burden for an already overstretched Pentagon budget.
"We do not take Congress for granted," says the senior administration official. "This is a serious commitment and it has to do with America's purposes in the post-cold-war world."