It's Good for You
The New York Times
February 10, 1998
It was interesting to be in Prague watching on CNN as the U.S. Congress gave President Clinton a standing ovation for his call to expand NATO to Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. It was interesting because Mr. Clinton couldn't get a similar standing ovation for that proposal from the Czech Parliament.
Yes, after months of the Czech Government bombarding the public here with propaganda about why they have to join NATO, polls still show that only 54 percent of Czechs favor the idea. So just remember this equation: two-thirds of the U.S. Senate is going to be asked to ratify a NATO expansion that will ultimately cost U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars, but only half the Czech people being expanded to support the idea. . . .
Czech advocates of NATO have had to resort to evoking the "Red scare." You can't find a picture of former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev anywhere in Russia today. But his face was recently plastered up in Prague, above the sarcastic words, "Thank you for freely deciding not to join NATO." The campaign was meant to shock Czechs into joining the alliance.
Indeed, to the extent that there is support here for NATO membership, it is for all the reasons the Clinton team says NATO expansion is not about. The Clintonites insist it is not an anti-Russian move, but Czechs say if it is not anti-Russian what use could NATO expansion be? "It is highly confusing to Czech people," said the Czech polling analyst Jan Hartl from the Stem agency. "They say, 'We want NATO against Russia, and if it's not against Russia, who needs it?' "
Those Czechs who remain indifferent to NATO membership fall into several camps. Many simply see no threat, so no reason. Some older Czechs are more afraid of Germany than Russia. Many younger people are deeply skeptical of spending money on the Czech military, which did not defend the country from the Nazis in 1938, from the Communists in 1948 or from the Soviets in 1968.
To break down this skepticism, Jiri Bis, head of the Impact ad agency in Prague, has been running a privately financed, pro-NATO campaign, often using sports heros and movie stars to sell NATO expansion as though it were deodorant. It's the Czech equivalent of "Hi, I'm Michael Jordan and I'm here to talk to you about NATO. . . .
Hi, I'm Cindy Crawford and I'm here to talk to you about the Eastern Front." He's also tried to make NATO fun. On Christmas Eve they gave out 100 fresh carp to the first 100 people who showed up in Prague's main square wearing pro-NATO ribbons. They also gave away Polish dumplings, Hungarian goulash and Czech beer to honor the three would-be NATO members. There has also been an effort to underscore that joining NATO "is a way for Czechs to rejoin Europe, which we were separated from by the cold war," said Mr. Bis.
But even those Czechs who see NATO membership as a bridge to Western Europe would really prefer to join the European Union first, but the E.U. has been dragging its feet because it does not want Eastern European workers or farm products. When asked in a Stem poll what was more important, E.U. membership or NATO, 44 percent of Czechs said they preferred E.U. membership and 13 percent said NATO.
So far cost of membership has not been an issue, because no one really knows how much is involved. But it will be high. This is a country that traded its only advanced fighter jets, 10 MIG-29's, to Poland for helicopters because it could not afford to maintain the planes. Says Miroslav Vacek, a former Czech Defense Minister and leader of the Communist Party here, "For the NATO alliance the Czech Army cannot mean anything in its present condition, and I doubt we will have the economic growth in the coming years to pay for the upgrades."
And if NATO expansion has to be paid for with reduced health care, social care and education, he added, it is going to lose a lot of support. When the Czech Parliament's Foreign Relations Committee began debating ratification of NATO membership the other day, only 6 out of the 18 members of the committee showed up.
So get this: The Clinton team is begging Czechs to take something -- NATO expansion -- that is for their own protection, and yet barely half feel they want it, need it or are ready to pay much for it. But never mind, the Clintonites intend to plow ahead with expansion anyway. Who says American foreign policy can't be funny?