Dispute mars Nato's big day

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The Independent Online
THE FOREIGN ministers of the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland completed their countries' accession to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation yesterday in a ceremony replete with symbolism - intended and unintended.

The venue was the modest Truman Library on the edge of the equally modest town of Independence, Missouri - Harry Truman's home before and after his presidency. Furnished with the trappings of international meetings, the library was almost overwhelmed.

It was chosen to illustrate the line linking the original treaty, which came into being under Truman's watch 50 years ago, and the accession of the three Central European countries shut out at that time by the descent of the Iron Curtain.

But yesterday there was an absence of Nato dignitaries. The task of receiving the new members' documents was allotted to Madeleine Albright, US Secretary of State, who spoke of the "coming home" of the three nations "to the world they always belonged to".

But the sense of unity and completion the ceremony might have fostered was diminished twice over. The lack of wider interest made it almost a bilateral US-Central Europe meeting. Even in Independence there was scant interest about the event. While some people were amazed Washington should descend on them, others drew unfavourable comparisons between "their" president, who knew where the buck stops, and the present White House occupant. In an unfortunate coincidence, the congressional delegation was depleted after the late finish of Thursday's debate on deploying US troops in Kosovo. President Clinton believes they can be sent under existing provisions and opposed any debate. But Dennis Hastert, the new House Speaker, has still to establish his authority and could not afford to resist Republican demands for a say. More than 40 Republicans voted with the Democrats to approve sending 4,000 troops to Kosovo but the fact remained that only hours before Nato's mutual security guarantees were extended for the first time to Central Europe, Congress was preoccupied with a debate echoing its first debates about Nato.

The argument, isolationists against Atlanticists, is repeated practically every time a US president wants to commit forces or funds abroad. For the dispute to erupt at that point showed the new Nato members that America still has misgivings about military involvement across the Atlantic.

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