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Senate Likely to Approve NATO Expansion
May 7, 2003

WASHINGTON (AP) - A proposal to add seven eastern European nations to NATO is likely to sail through the Senate this week, a contrast to the heated debate five years ago surrounding the last expansion of the alliance.

Senators have few objections to the nations seeking to join NATO. It's some of the existing members they find problematic, specifically France, Germany and Belgium.

As senators begin considering the expansion Wednesday, much of their debate likely will deal with those three nations and their attempt to use the trans-Atlantic alliance to block U.S. moves toward war in Iraq.

The dispute over Iraq was NATO's worst crisis in years. It added to questions lingering since the end of the Cold War about what role NATO should serve now that its longtime adversary, the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact, no longer exists.

``We can't continue to have disagreements about what our mutual threats are and have a strong alliance,'' said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas. ``And I want it to be a strong alliance.''

Senators are more enthusiastic about the new members. Six belonged to the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein's government: Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovakia. The seventh is Slovenia.

The Senate is expected to easily provide the two-thirds majority needed to ratify their entry. No House vote is needed. Their entry will depend on the ratification of the 19 NATO states, most of which have not yet voted.

The last Senate vote on NATO expansion was more difficult. The admission of the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland was ratified 80-19 following opposition from a small but determined group of senators.

Opponents were concerned that NATO expansion into eastern Europe could isolate Russia at a time the United States was trying to improve relations. They also questioned putting too many nations under the NATO security umbrella. The heart of NATO is a mutual defense pact that commits all members to respond with military force to an attack on any other member.

Since then, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who replaced Boris Yeltsin more than three years ago, has offered little resistance to the NATO expansion. A NATO-Russia council was formed last year, making Russia a limited partner in the alliance.

President Bush strongly supports the expansion and the Senate's Republican majority is unlikely to defy him.

Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, opposed the last expansion, but will support this one ``in light of Sept. 11 and the need to strengthen the NATO military alliance,'' said his spokesman, Will Hart.

The mutual defense provisions were invoked after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks for the United States. NATO provided AWACS surveillance planes to patrol U.S. skies.

Sen. John Warner, R-Va., one of the main opponents to the expansion in 1998, also said he will vote for the seven new members.

But Warner, now chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and the panel's top Democrat, Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, will try to add conditions to encourage NATO to consider organizational changes. They want reviews of NATO's policy requiring unanimity in decisions and whether the alliance should be able to suspend members that fail to adhere to democratic principles.

``A nation that was once a democracy could slip back into dictatorship, and I don't think that NATO should be subject to a veto of such a country if that happens,'' Levin said.

The unanimity rule was at the core of the Iraq dispute. In February, Belgium, France and Germany blocked a request by Turkey for help strengthening its defenses ahead of a war with Iraq. The three nations said assistance could undermine hopes of avoiding a war.

The dispute was resolved after Turkey's request was brought before NATO's little used Defense Planning Committee. The panel doesn't include France, which left NATO's military command structure in 1966.

Germany and Belgium then agreed to the assistance in exchange for assurances that the alliance would support U.N. efforts to find a peaceful solution in Iraq.

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