WASHINGTON — President Clinton declared Thursday that the United States will support the inclusion of only three countries--Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic--in plans to expand NATO.
In making the announcement, the president was rejecting the wishes of several European allies who strongly support the bids of Slovenia and Romania to become members of the alliance.
Although France and Italy--the leaders of the group favoring five new members--were expected to put up a fight, the announcement almost surely put an end to more than three years of jockeying over the shape of the first post-Cold War enlargement of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Given the position of the United States, by far the most powerful member, there clearly will be no consensus for adding five countries when the 16 member nations gather for a summit in Madrid next month, Clinton administration officials said.
"The United States' position will prevail," White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry predicted.
In total, 12 countries applied for NATO membership in this round, but none of the other seven were considered strong contenders.
Clinton stressed, however, that NATO will continue to grow. "The first new members should not and will not be the last," he said.
Citing Slovenia and Romania, Clinton pledged that the United States will continue working with them and other NATO candidates to help them prepare for future membership in the alliance.
Nonetheless, officials from the spurned countries expressed disappointment.
Slovenia's ambassador to the United States, Ernest Petric, said he felt like a math student who was given nothing but praise for his computation skills and then opened his report card to find a C.
"We were a little surprised because nobody tells us what's wrong with us. We are always assured we are a great candidate," he said.
Clinton said he considered which nations were most able to add strength to the alliance and shoulder the obligations of NATO membership. Although both Slovenia and Romania met the qualifications for membership, there were concerns that Slovenia's military is too weak and that Romania's democratic reforms, many launched within the past year, are too new.
Petre Roman, speaker of the Romanian Senate, said that he believes his government will weather the disappointment and keep reforms intact but warned that the rebuff will complicate an already difficult situation. Romanians, like the citizens of most other former Soviet Bloc countries undergoing democratic and free-market reforms, have endured economic hardships. The possibility of NATO membership gave the people a reason for their suffering, he said.
Speaking on Wednesday, before Clinton's announcement, Roman predicted that exclusion from NATO would leave Romanians feeling "disillusion and disappointment."
But in Bucharest on Thursday, Romania's Foreign Ministry issued a statement expressing hope that Clinton's announcement "represents neither the U.S. final decision nor the NATO final decision."
The statement underscored the time available for a U.S. change of course before the Madrid summit, when the alliance is expected to formally issue the first invitations.
But McCurry stressed: "The United States' position is firm."
One reason the president opted for the smaller NATO expansion is that it would be less expensive, presumably making it more appealing to Congress and the legislatures of other member nations.
Estimates of the cost of a three-country expansion over the next dozen years vary widely--from $27 billion to $125 billion--but analysts agree that adding five members would cost more.
Although Congress has yet to turn its attention to NATO expansion, the debate there is expected to be contentious. The more costly the project, the more opposition it would be likely to face.
The president's announcement came toward the end of the day in France, and the French government needed another day to analyze the U.S. position and announce its own strategy, according to Bernard Valero, press attache at the French Embassy in Washington. But European analysts predicted a battle.
"I think there will be a pretty serious fight on this one," said Francois Heisbourg, a French defense analyst.
France, which is Romania's prime patron, and Italy, which is Slovenia's, had combined forces to persuade most of NATO's smaller member countries to support the addition of five members to the alliance.
It is not yet clear how tough French President Jacques Chirac will be on the international stage after the stunning victory by his opposition, the Socialist Party, in legislative elections earlier this month.