The Washington Times

In an abrupt reversal last week, the Senate decisively rejected an amendment to a defense construction bill that would have forced withdrawal July 1, 2001, of the 5,900 U.S. troops from the 39,000-man peacekeeping force in Kosovo – unless the administration got congressional authorization to keep the troops there. The vote was a test of the seriousness of the ongoing U.S. commitment to European security through NATO. In a way, it opened the next phase of the debate on that commitment.

The Byrd-Warner amendment passed out of committee on a wildly lopsided vote of 23-3. Proponents were hoping for a similarly one-sided vote on the Senate floor, a margin beyond the reach of a presidential veto. Although no one expected the amendment to land on the president’s desk in its current form supported by veto-proof margins from both chambers of Congress, proponents were hoping to send a strong signal to the administration about minimal political support for the Kosovo deployment, thereby forcing a dialogue about a compromise in which Congress, having asserted itself on the policy in a hitherto unprecedented way, would have had the upper hand.

I explained in this space last week why I thought Byrd-Warner was a bad idea. Although it did serve as a vehicle to raise two legitimate issues – the insufficiency of the administration’s efforts to build a political case for the policy and the question of burden-sharing within the alliance – the amendment was hardly the only or the best way to make those points. More to the point, the amendment served as a stalking horse for some forces trying to change the terms of our engagement with Europe radically and, by extension, the rest of the world – for such would the effect have been – without really saying what they were up to.

With very little time to reverse the huge momentum behind Byrd-Warner as a result of the one-sided committee vote, the administration fought back with a veto threat and warnings from Defense Secretary William Cohen and former NATO commander Wesley K. Clark. Perhaps equally important, not only Vice President Gore but also George W. Bush opposed the measure. Each had excellent reason to do so, since each expects to be president next year and accordingly would have little affection for efforts by Congress to schedule a major, entirely unnecessary foreign policy crisis for the new administration for July 1. The effect of Mr. Bush’s criticism of congressional overreaching here was broader than that, however. It reaffirmed an off-limits zone in American policy – a place where we take serious things seriously and won’t allow them to be subjugated to the struggle for partisan advantage (or in the case of Mr. Byrd, his eccentric extra-constitutional view of legislative branch supremacy in foreign policy).

So what looked like it had the makings of a major slap to Kosovo policy turned instead into a rout for the proponents of Byrd-Warner. Fifteen Republicans joined 38 Democrats to vote the measure down 53-47.

The broader significance of this is that Kosovo hardly exists in a vacuum. It is not the equivalent of, for example, our ill-fated deployment in Somalia – a place where involvement or disengagement is a relatively discrete question. Kosovo is in Europe, long our most important interest and a place in whose stability, peacefulness and prosperity we have a huge stake. To that end, we have our most important security commitment, NATO, which was responsible for the Kosovo campaign and, come what may, is responsible for its aftermath. A bugout would have consequences far beyond Kosovo.

Looking ahead, it might perhaps be more accurate to say that defining Kosovo out of Europe – beyond the concern of NATO members -would have been a decision with far-reaching implications, a declaration of indifference to what happens on the periphery of NATO. Since the Soviet threat, around which the alliance was organized for its first 40 years, came to an end, NATO has shown itself a major pillar of European stability for nations recently unshackled from Moscow. The prospect of membership has encouraged democratic development and peaceful settlement of long-standing disputes throughout Europe. For the first time ever, the prospect of the entire continent of Europe living in freedom and prospering is within sight.

But it depends critically on the continuation of the U.S. security commitment. At a conference in Vilnius, Lithuania, last Friday, where foreign ministers from nine nations declared their intention to work together for NATO membership, the Polish foreign minister, Bronislaw Geremek, stated flatly that March 12, 1999 – the day Poland was admitted to NATO along with Hungary and the Czech Republic – was the happiest of his life.

That statement needs to be taken seriously. Mr. Geremek, one of the great Polish freedom fighters, had other possible dates to choose from. He selected the one on which Poland got something it hasn’t really had in its entire history – security, which is to say, the prospect of permanent freedom.

We shouldn’t be the least bit casual about that desire on the part of any of the newly free countries of Europe. The passage of Byrd-Warner would have been an indication of such casualness; its defeat got the next round of consideration of the meaning of Europe to the United States, and vice versa – the question underlying the next round of NATO enlargement in 2002 – off to the right start.