“. . . The most important, and sole, voice at the top of the Clinton administration asking that question was none other than the defense secretary, Bill Perry. Recalling that moment years later, Perry in 2016 told a conference of The Guardian newspaper:
“In the last few years, most of the blame can be pointed at the actions that Putin has taken. But in the early years I have to say that the United States deserves much of the blame. Our first action that really set us off in a bad direction was when NATO started to expand, bringing in Eastern European nations, some of them bordering Russia.
“At that time, we were working closely with Russia and they were beginning to get used to the idea that NATO could be a friend rather than an enemy … but they were very uncomfortable about having NATO right up on their border and they made a strong appeal for us not to go ahead with that.”
On May 2, 1998, immediately after the Senate ratified NATO expansion, I called George Kennan, the architect of America’s successful containment of the Soviet Union. Having joined the State Department in 1926 and served as U.S. ambassador to Moscow in 1952, Kennan was arguably America’s greatest expert on Russia. Though 94 at the time and frail of voice, he was sharp of mind when I asked for his opinion of NATO expansion.
I am going to share Kennan’s whole answer:
“I think it is the beginning of a new cold war. I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else. This expansion would make the founding fathers of this country turn over in their graves.
“We have signed up to protect a whole series of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intention to do so in any serious way. [NATO expansion] was simply a lighthearted action by a Senate that has no real interest in foreign affairs. What bothers me is how superficial and ill informed the whole Senate debate was. I was particularly bothered by the references to Russia as a country dying to attack Western Europe.
“Don’t people understand? Our differences in the Cold War were with the Soviet Communist regime. And now we are turning our backs on the very people who mounted the greatest bloodless revolution in history to remove that Soviet regime. And Russia’s democracy is as far advanced, if not farther, as any of these countries we’ve just signed up to defend from Russia. Of course there is going to be a bad reaction from Russia, and then [the NATO expanders] will say that we always told you that is how the Russians are — but this is just wrong.”
David Lindsay Jr.
Hamden, CT | NYT Comment:
These are great comments in opposition, but I still agree with Tom Friedman and George Kennan. We could have and should have held off the expansion of NATO, and not given the Putins in Russia such low hanging fruit, when its new and naked democracy was just trying to get off the ground and fly. Democracy is a tricky way to live, and sometimes, it feels as fragile as a butterfly. As one writer pointed out recently, we have had thousands of years of strong men and women, kingdoms and dictatorships. Democracy hasn’t yet really proven it can survive for very long.
This heavy handedness in 1998 is on NATO, and President Bill Clinton, and his secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, who, was raised in Czechoslovakia. She got her native land protected into NATO, without seeing as deeply as the old man Kennan and his allies, who warned of creating a backlash. Maybe Putin would have seized power anyway, but that is beside the point. NATO expansion before it was needed, logically, helped people like Putin come to and consolidate power, and undo the new Russian democracy. It is my sense now that NATO should go to war with Putin if necessary to protect the Ukraine. Since we helped create this Putin dictatorship monster, we should help kill it. The counter though, is that Sun Tzu would warn, long wars are for the weak minded and impatient.
David Lindsay Jr is the author of “The Tay Son Rebellion,” about 18th century Vietnam, and blogs at InconvenientNews.net.