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A blind leap for NATO

The Senate, almost offhandedly, has opened the door for Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic to become full members of NATO. Now that the world must live with the consequences of last week's momentous vote, we can only hope that the worst fears of this country's influential opponents of NATO expansion _ all of whom have given the issue much more serious thought than most senators did _ fail to materialize.

The fears go to the heart of U.S. security in the post-Cold War world, and they were only magnified by the failure of the Clinton administration and its congressional supporters to answer basic questions during the debate over NATO expansion:

How will Russia respond?

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and other administration members blithely insist that Russia's ominous objections are not to be taken seriously. But NATO was created to counter Soviet expansion in Europe, and the alliance's reach is being extended closer than ever to Russia's western flank. How could Russia, which is the one post-Communist government in the region that pointedly has not been invited to join NATO, fail to consider this an act of provocation? And how will the dispute over NATO expansion affect the chances for U.S.-Russian cooperation on issues such as arms control, terrorism and Iraq?

How much will NATO expansion cost?

The Pentagon's original low-ball estimate of $400-million over 10 years was too self-serving to be taken seriously. The defense contractors who stand to profit from this decision know that the real number will be billions more. Even the Congressional Budget Office's estimate of $19-billion over 15 years is considered overly optimistic by many experts.

What do Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic bring to the alliance?

Can their inclusion possibly enhance the security of the United States and Western Europe? Or will the commitment to defend the three new members from aggression open the original allies to security risks that have not been adequately contemplated? What additional commitment of troops and hardware, including nuclear weapons, is the United States prepared to make to these countries?

Who's next?

Does NATO continue expanding to Romania? Slovakia? The Baltics? If not, by what criteria will we deny the several governments waiting in line behind the three new members?

Finally, the most basic _ and difficult _ question of all: What is NATO's appropriate mission, if any, in the post-Cold War world?

Russia's misgivings, along with those of patriotic critics in our own country, might be allayed if the United States had convincingly articulated a less threatening reason for NATO's continued existence.

Only now, after our government already has committed itself, are the Clinton administration and the Senate Armed Services Committee proposing to begin a serious analysis of the likely threats to European security, and of the likely consequences to U.S. forces of an expanded NATO commitment. That is astonishingly irresponsible behavior on the part of what used to be known as the world's greatest deliberative body.

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