Unusual Foes to NATO Growth

With Senate vote late this week, toy and ice cream makers are among those objecting to the expansion.

What do Cherry Garcia ice cream, "Monkees' Greatest Hits" CDs, and G.I. Joe action figures have to do with NATO expansion?

More than one might think. The heads of firms that produce these products - Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream, Rhino Records, and Hasbro Inc. - have all joined an unusual alliance that's against adding Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic to the Atlantic Alliance.

Whether such last-ditch opposition will make a difference remains to be seen. With a US Senate vote on NATO expansion set for late this week, all signs still point to easy approval of arguably the most fateful foreign policy initiative of the Clinton presidency.

Even opponents admit that the administration right now has more than the 66 "yes" votes needed for approval.

But an intensified effort by foes has at least guaranteed that the final Senate debate on the subject won't be as listless as seemed likely only a few weeks ago.

Business groups, arms control advocates, fiscal conservatives, and think tank wonks have all raised their voices in an effort to make sure senators think hard about the consequences of the NATO expansion ballot.

Their main points: NATO expansion could cost much more than predicted, might blur NATO's purpose, and could isolate Russia and revive a cold war mentality on both sides of the new NATO line.

"The downside potential if things go wrong is considerable," warns former Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia, who during his time in office was one of Washington's most respected national-security experts.

The addition of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization would mark the first expansion of the organization since Spain was accepted as a member in 1982.

The Clinton administration has pushed hard for the move, saying it would ensure stability in the region and help cement the emerging democracies of Eastern Europe into the larger Western world.

Under the NATO charter, all of the 16 current NATO members must approve any expansion. That gives the Senate an effective veto power over the move, via its authority to ratify presidential treaties.

The full Senate began debating NATO expansion in March. The discussion seemed largely preliminary, however, and majority leader Sen. Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi put off full consideration until after the Easter recess.

That's given time for the opposition to organize. Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities (BLSP), an education and lobbying organization headed by Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry's Homemade Inc., began a TV and newspaper ad blitz on April 19.

"Hey, let's scare the Russians!" ran the ad the group placed in some major US newspapers. "Let's take NATO and expand it toward Russia's very borders. We'll assure the Russians we come in peace."

Richard Foos, president of Rhino Records, and Alan Hassenfeld, chairman of Hasbro, are also part of the lobby group.

With a $150,000 ad budget, BLSP isn't exactly going to launch a nationwide firestorm about NATO expansion implications. But neither is it alone. Other organizations, from the libertarian Cato Institute to the liberal Council for a Livable World, have joined with it in a loose coalition that among other things has pushed to raise the topic on radio talk shows.

IF nothing else, the crazy-quilt nature of the opposition, in which liberal foes of military action have joined with business leaders and conservatives concerned about maintaining American sovereignty, shows how much geopolitics has changed since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

No longer do political attitudes about national security break down along easily predictable left-right lines.

"In the post-cold-war context you've got these very odd coalitions," points out Joseph Lepgold, an associate professor of government at Georgetown University.

Phyllis Schlafly, founder of the conservative Eagle Forum, opposes NATO expansion because she fears it would enmesh the US in Eastern Europe's internal animosities. Sen. Paul Wellstone (D) of Minnesota, one of the Senate's most liberal members, opposes NATO expansion because of its cost and effect on Russia.

"The number of times Phyllis Schlafly and Paul Wellstone will agree in our lifetime is not many," says Mr. Lepgold.

Opponents claim to be gaining ground. Sen. John Warner (R) of Virginia, a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, claims that he can now count more than 20 Senate votes against the move.

But opponents need 34 votes, and they're not likely to get them. The domestic and international coalition driving NATO expansion has now worked up all the momentum of a steamroller.

Once a president argues that US prestige and leadership are on the line in regards to a foreign policy vote - as President Clinton has done - the Senate disagrees with him only in the most fateful circumstances, point out experts.

And senators are unlikely to be pushed toward a "no" vote by opposition from home. While a recent Pew Research poll found support for NATO expansion has dropped from 63 percent last September to 49 percent today, opposition has remained constant, at around 18 percent.

The opposition may be successful in increasing support for amendments to the NATO expansion treaty which, in essence, would allow senators to hedge their bets. One, submitted by Senator Warner, would require a three-year pause before the next expansion round. Others would fix the US share of costs of upgrading new members' militaries.

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