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Foes of larger NATO still worked up

The votes had hardly been counted before the sour grapes brigade marched out in force the other day to say the United States was making its biggest mistake of the post-Cold War era.

The more dire of these doomsayers even warned that Washington was one step closer to global nuclear war and the annihilation of humanity as we know it.

What got these people so worked up was the U.S. Senate's 80-19 vote last week to expand the North Atlantic Treaty Organization by admitting three former Warsaw Pact members _ Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

According to the critics, those 80 senators who voted to enlarge NATO were either stupid, ill-informed, slaves to their Eastern European ethnic constituencies, in the pocket of the weapons manufacturers, irresponsible or all of the above. There simply couldn't be any other way to explain their decision.

Whenever I hear such arguments, especially from former mid-level government officials or Washington's cadre of university and think-tank academics, I start wondering about their motives. Are we dealing with a genuine concern for the future of our country? Or a way for people to get their faces on TV or their names in the paper? Is it an honest disagreement over policy? Or a fit of pique over not having had their advice taken seriously in the highest offices of the land?

There's probably a bit of all this in what we've been hearing since the Senate took its NATO vote last Thursday. Even the most eminent of the critics, those who have been at the center of American decision-making on East-West issues, have shown a few odd biases when it comes to NATO's role in the world these days.

Take, for example, Helmut Sonnenfeldt, the former State Department Soviet affairs analyst now with the Brookings Institution. In recent days, he has been arguing that NATO's enlargement is forcing Russia to define itself increasingly in opposition to all things American.

Now that may or may not be true. Other Russia experts note that Moscow's latest anti-Washington policies began well before NATO enlargement came up for a vote, most notably when the hard-line Yevgeny Primakov took over as Russian foreign minister.

Sonnenfeldt's assertion does, however, bring to mind how he first became well-known outside foreign policy circles. He's the author, you might recall, of the so-called "Sonnenfeldt Doctrine," a position paper he drew up in the 1970s urging Washington to accept the Soviet Union's domination of Eastern Europe as a permanent fact because it would help maintain stability in the region.

It almost goes without saying that many people in Poland, Hungary and the rest of Eastern Europe weren't exactly enamored with Sonnenfeldt's ideas at the time and no doubt hope they aren't given much currency in today's Washington either.

And what about so august a former statesman as George F. Kennan, generally considered the brains behind U.S. efforts to contain the Soviet Union after World War II. Before and after the Senate vote, Kennan had warned that a U.S. decision to approve NATO expansion would be our biggest, most tragic mistake "in the post-Cold War era."

Anyone with Kennan's credentials certainly deserves to be heard and his thoughts considered with utmost seriousness. But when he claims that the Senate's NATO debate was "light-hearted," or that "Russia's democracy is as far advanced, if not further" than those in Poland, Hungary or the Czech Republic, you have to look critically at his other arguments as well.

First of all, the "post-Cold War era" isn't even seven years old yet, and last week's NATO vote was the first truly major decision Washington has made on the subject since that era began.

And even though the public wasn't paying attention, the fact remains that Senate committees and subcommittees have been studying and churning out position papers and fact sheets on NATO enlargement for almost four years. And while last week's full Senate debate on the issue was long overdue, to be sure, it was anything but "light-hearted."

Then considering that eight secretaries of state, as well as the leaders of all our NATO allies argued forcefully in favor of NATO expansion, it's hard to understand Kennan's other charge that the debate was "ill-informed." Especially when Kennan's own views were given the full hearing they deserved by those senators voting against.

Looking back on it, it's hard not to conclude that the class act in the Senate's NATO debate was turned in by John Warner, the Virginia Republican who led the opposition and who had been arguing forcefully against NATO expansion for more than a year. Warner gave it his best shot, noting there was still no reliable accounting on how much expansion would cost or critical thinking about which Eastern European nations, if any, to let in next.

Enlarging NATO now, he warned, involved risks that couldn't be totally understood yet and benefits that might be long in coming, if indeed they were benefits.

In the end, the arguments put forward by Warner and other expansion critics didn't prevail. The Senate, in its collective wisdom, voted to go another way. And in acknowledging this new direction, Warner vowed that he and the Senate's other critics of NATO enlargement would "do our best to make it work."

The arguments having been made, the vote having been taken, that's the least you can expect.