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U.S. Public Acutely Uninterested in Vote on NATO Expansion

Europe: The stakes are high, but weak opposition and lack of a crisis atmosphere almost ensure Senate approval.

April 08, 1998|TYLER MARSHALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — After one of Congress' most curious debates on a major international issue, President Clinton's signature foreign policy initiative--enlarging NATO--seems headed for easy Senate ratification later this month.

That is, if senators ever get around to voting.

Confused efforts to shoehorn the final hours of discussion on expanding the North Atlantic Treaty Organization into gaps in a floor debate on education last month reflected the fact that the issue, although enormously important for the United States, has barely raised the average American's eyebrow.

Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) eventually suspended the embarrassing on-again, off-again debate, saying he would try again later--most likely when the Senate returns from its Easter recess.

A widely expected yes vote in the Senate would effectively approve the extension of Washington's most enduring military alliance--and the U.S. defense burden--hundreds of miles eastward in Europe to include three newly democratic countries: Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

Public Not Stirred

The pros and cons of expanding the Atlantic alliance have been hotly discussed among the United States' blue-suited foreign policy elite. Some members hail it as a vital ingredient for European stability; others dismiss it as pure folly--an almost whimsical extension of Washington's obligations that will devalue the nation's defense shield, weaken the alliance and needlessly alienate Russia.

These views have fed more than a thousand editorials and opinion-page articles in American newspapers, countless think-tank seminars and upward of a dozen congressional hearings. Last year, a bipartisan group of 28 senators was formed to plumb the issue, and Clinton hired an advisor whose sole task has been to get the 67 Senate votes needed for ratification.

"Few votes before the Senate have as much far-reaching significance as this," declared Sen. William V. Roth Jr. (R-Del.), kicking off last month's floor debate.

Maybe so, but for the general public, NATO expansion remains a yawn.

Despite the vigorous debate among policymakers and the enormous stakes, the only questions coming from the street seem to be "Does it matter?" and "Who cares?"

An opinion survey on major current events released Friday by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that only 5% of those questioned were following the NATO enlargement issue "very closely." By comparison, an earlier survey during a standoff with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein indicated that nearly half the population was following events in Iraq intensely.

The latest Pew study also found that the number of Americans with any opinion on the issue has dropped off sharply since Clinton and other NATO leaders formally invited the three countries to join at a Madrid summit last summer. Nearly one in three Americans questioned last month admitted that they did not know if enlarging NATO was a good or bad idea.

"As an issue that matters, it's dropped off the screen," said the center's director, Andrew Kohut. As a result, the biggest extension of U.S. security commitments since the end of the Cold War is likely to pass into reality with little awareness on the part of most Americans.

Major Senate Backing

The reason for public apathy can be traced to two simple realities: the lack of a crisis over the alliance's enlargement and the inability of opponents to mount a credible, sustained campaign against it.

All three candidate countries are stable, albeit young, democracies, threatened by no one and showing every sign of growing stronger with years. Committing to defend thousands of square miles of new territory in Europe might be important in the long term, but right now it lacks the drama and sense of confrontation of the recent standoff with Iraq.

In fact, one argument against expanding the alliance is that it is unnecessary.

But more important than this lack of drama is what one observer referred to as the "wall-to-wall" political support for an idea proposed by a Democratic president, embraced by the Republican Congress' "contract with America" and backed by most big names in the Senate.

"It's the last big hurrah for the old guard Europeanists," said a veteran Senate staffer, noting that support runs across the Senate's political spectrum, from North Carolina's Jesse Helms on the Republican right to Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts on the Democratic left.

So strong is support for the initiative that it easily survived major fudging on cost estimates, which miraculously shrank from $100 billion to around $1.5 billion as soon as bickering between the U.S. and European allies began over who would pay the bill. Worries about the move's impact on relations with Russia have also generated no serious opposition.

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