Clinton: Three new NATO members and no more _ for now
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Leaving no room for compromise, President Clinton drew the line Thursday at inviting three new members into NATO next month: Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.
The decision dashed hopes of Romania and Slovenia and put the United States at odds with France, Italy and other European allies.
``The United States’ position is firm,″ presidential spokesman Mike McCurry said. Asked if that position might be overruled, he said, ``That’s not likely.″
In Europe, some allies bristled at the White House announcement.
``We don’t agree with this solution,″ Italian Defense Minister Beniamino Andreatta said at a meeting of defense chiefs in Brussels, Belgium. British Defense Minister George Robertson said, ``The American decision is not necessarily the NATO decision.″ Yet, he acknowledged that Clinton’s announcement was ``pretty significant and will obviously have a big impact on the people here.″
Clinton’s statement represented a switch to U.S. assertiveness after weeks of quiet diplomacy to build a consensus and avoid antagonizing allies. In the absence of a strong U.S. stand, France had been recruiting support for Romania, and Italy had led a drive to include Slovenia.
Petre Roman, president of the Romanian senate who was on a three-day visit to Washington, made clear his disappointment.
``It hurt, and the people of Romania will be disappointed″ about not being included, he said in an interview. But Roman held out hope. There will be a second wave of new NATO entrants and then ``Romania will be in the first line,″ he said.
By taking an unambiguous position, Clinton sought to quash the French and Italian campaigns and shape the outcome of next month’s NATO summit in Madrid. At a two-day meeting, the alliance will open its doors for the first class of new members from former Soviet bloc countries.
Nine of NATO’s 16 members have expressed support for admitting Romania and Slovenia in the first wave of new nations, but the United States has argued to hold the line at three, arguing that more members would increase security costs and strain the alliance. U.S. officials said the support for Romania and Slovenia was soft.
The U.S. stand on important issues usually prevails in NATO. Clinton will try to persuade French President Jacques Chirac and Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi when he meets them next week in Denver at the summit of industrialized nations.
If that effort is not successful, ``it could be a little bit messy in the runup to Madrid,″ a senior U.S. official told reporters.
The new members are expected to join NATO in 1999, the alliance’s 50th anniversary. NATO membership would put them under the protection of the U.S. nuclear umbrella.
Defense Secretary William Cohen notified allies of Clinton’s decision at the meeting in Brussels. Separately, U.S. officials notified other governments. Ambassadors from the three Baltic nations _ which hope to join some day _ were notified and were encouraged that NATO’s door would remain open, U.S. officials said. Russia was not formally contacted.
To soften the disappointment of Slovenia and Romania, Clinton said the United States would work with them and other interested countries to help prepare them for membership. ``As I have repeatedly emphasized,″ Clinton said, ``the first new members should not and will not be the last.″
Romanian Foreign Minister Adrian Severin said, ``As far as we are concerned we do not share this point of view and we think it is a point of view that does not support or protect the United States’ interests enough in the zone.″
``We are extremely disappointed,″ a Slovenian diplomat said in the corridors of NATO.
In another sign of U.S. assertiveness, Defense Secretary William Cohen ruled out a European commander for NATO’s southern command. ``From my point of view,″ he said, ``the affair is closed.″
Cohen said one reason Clinton preferred holding the initial group of new NATO members to three was to make it easier to win Senate ratification for a treaty amendment to enlarge the alliance.
McCurry said that NATO consultations on issues such as expansion are helpful. ``But at the end of the day when the United States publicly articulates a position, that tends to be a way in which things are brought to resolution.″
Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republican expressed appreciation at Clinton’s decision but expressed hopes the alliance also would embrace other Central and Eastern European nations down the line.
``The door needs to be left open to other countries seeking admission,″ Hungarian Foreign Ministry spokesman Gabor Szentivanyi said. ``Hungary is committed to active participation with those countries that aspire to NATO membership in order to bring them closer to the alliance.″
The U.S. position is that there is a clear consensus for admitting Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic but not for Slovenia and Romania.
Cohen said that despite the ``impressive progress″ of Slovenia and Romania, both ``need more time.″ Others, however, argue that NATO needs to balance expansion with Slovenia in the Balkans and Romania on the Black Sea.
McCurry said Slovenia needs to improve its military capacity before it joins NATO. Romania needs to make more progress in political reforms and economic liberalization, he said.