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Clinton Launching Drive to Sell NATO Expansion to U.S.

Diplomacy: On eve of European trip, president says he hopes to create climate favorable to security commitments. He extols the benefits of 'dogs that don't bark.'

May 26, 1997|DOYLE McMANUS | TIMES WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF

WASHINGTON — With one eye on the history books and the other on a restive public, President Clinton heads to Europe this week with a goal more domestic than diplomatic: convincing Americans that a U.S. commitment to defend Poland and other former Communist countries is worth the cost--in money and troops--because it will reduce the chances of another war on the continent.

Adding new members to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization "will reduce the likelihood that Americans will have to die in Europe in the 21st century," Clinton told several reporters in an interview last week.

"It's almost impossible to get people to calculate the benefits of the dogs that don't bark," Clinton said. "But what we're trying to do is to create a world where the barking dogs of the 20th century don't yelp in the 21st."

With Clinton's encouragement, NATO is expected to invite Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic to join the alliance this year--a decision that would commit the United States to defending the three countries against any outside attack.

But the president acknowledged that Congress and the public have not yet focused on the costs of enlarging NATO--and that winning Senate approval will require a concerted effort.

"Historically, the United States has been much more, if not isolationist, at least noninvolved" in the security of the rest of the world, he said. "I sometimes think my biggest challenge is to create a climate within the country to meet the challenge."

Last month's ultimately successful struggle to win Senate ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention, which bans chemical warfare, and continuing resistance to granting the president "fast-track" authority to negotiate trade agreements have brought home a hard lesson, Clinton said: "It shows you this sort of resurgence of the historic American impulse of reluctance."

Thus, the president and his aides hope to turn his travels this week into one long infomercial on the benefits of U.S. engagement abroad.

Beginning with a Memorial Day speech today in Virginia at the grave of Gen. George C. Marshall, who committed the United States to rebuilding Europe after World War II; running through visits to Paris, London and Rotterdam, where the Dutch are throwing a "Thank You, America" celebration in honor of the Marshall Plan's 50th anniversary; and winding up with a speech next week at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Clinton hopes to convince Americans that while expanding military alliances is costly and sometimes dangerous, it is still better than the alternative.

"This is a moment to create a structure that will carry us for the next 50 years, in the same ways that Marshall and his generation and the Europeans created a structure that carried us through the Cold War," the president said, previewing what aides said will be his main theme this week. "I hope the American people will see that we are going to be safer, we are going to be more prosperous, the world will be a more decent place if we maintain our engagement."

Aides said Clinton has spent considerable time and energy on his foreign policy agenda in recent weeks--both because the issues are pressing and because he is looking for ways to make his second term's mark on history.

Clinton and his aides believe that they have a strong case to make in foreign policy, in part because they weathered a series of crises in his first term--a disastrous military commitment in Somalia, a successful showdown with a military regime in Haiti, an agonizing effort to end the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina--and can now concentrate on promoting initiatives of their own.

Major problems still loom. The situation in Bosnia remains unresolved; asked whether all U.S. troops will be out of the country by the current deadline of June 1998, Clinton sidestepped the question. And the issue of U.S. policy on China, in which Clinton said he is "struggling mightily here to maintain a policy of engagement . . . and to find a way to honestly deal with our differences," remains a headache.

By comparison, winning the fight to add new members to NATO looks almost easy. But, Clinton noted, he faces three kinds of opposition on the issue.

"There will be those who say: 'Why are we doing this? It costs too much money,' " he said, noting that the Pentagon has estimated the cost to the U.S. of adding new members at $150 million to $250 million a year.

"There will be those who think that . . . it's still dicey with the Russians," he said, referring to the charge by many foreign policy experts that NATO expansion eastward is leading Russian leaders to the conclusion that the West is hostile to their nation's security.

"And then there will be those who think that it's not tough enough [against the Russians]," he said of an agreement giving Russia a voice in NATO affairs. "I think all three groups are wrong."

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