WASHINGTON, Nov. 26 (UPI) -- In a rousing speech to an enthusiastic crowd in Lithuania, one of the seven countries NATO leaders have invited to join the alliance, President George W. Bush affirmed a commitment that may come back to haunt a future U.S. president. "Our alliance has made a solemn pledge of protection, and anyone who would choose Lithuania as an enemy has also made an enemy of the United States."
There is no doubt to whom his message was directed. There is only one conceivable source of coercion against Lithuania and the other Baltic republics now or at any point in the future: Russia.
For all the talk of cooperative relations between the United States and Russia, Bush's speech was a harsh reminder to Russian President Vladimir Putin that the Baltic states are now allies -- or more accurately, clients -- of the United States and will never again be part of even an informal Russian sphere of influence.
Bush's pledge underscores a crucial point. Most proponents of NATO's expansion eastward act as though the alliance is now little more than a political honor society. Their logic is that, because the nations of Central and Eastern Europe have become capitalist democracies, they deserve to become members of the West's most prominent club. And because NATO is now a political body, so the argument goes, Russia has no reason to fear or oppose its expansion.
But as Bush's promise to the Lithuanians should remind us, NATO is much more than a political club. It is still a military alliance with serious obligations for the United States. Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty proclaims that an attack on one member is an attack on all. That means the United States is obligated to defend every member -- no matter how small, how militarily and economically insignificant, or how strategically exposed that member might be.
And those obligations go on forever. Therein lies the danger. True, there is little risk of a clash with Russia in the near term. Russia's military is in no condition to challenge the United States even in Moscow's geopolitical backyard. Moreover, Putin has adopted a surprisingly accommodating policy in an effort to secure economic and political benefits from the United States and its allies.
But who knows what Putin's successor, or his successor's successor might be like? Who would dare predict the political environment in Russia a decade or a generation from now?
All that would be required to trigger a crisis is a Russian president who tires of the Baltic republics' continuing treatment of their Russian inhabitants as second class citizens and decides that Moscow should rectify that situation by force if necessary.
Indeed, a crisis could be triggered if a future Russian president concludes that a Western military presence in the Baltic region is an intolerable intrusion into what should rightfully be Moscow's sphere of influence.
That is why permanent U.S. security obligations are so unwise. The commitments may make sense -- or at least appear to be innocuous -- under one set of conditions, but they can become disastrous liabilities when conditions change.
When permanent commitments are made to strategically and economically irrelevant clients, the folly is compounded. The security pledges to Lithuania and the other Baltic republics are a case in point.
If the U.S. commitment were ever challenged, Washington would face a choice between a bad outcome and a worse one. The United States could renege on its commitment, which would devastate U.S. credibility and create doubts about all other U.S. security commitments and statements elsewhere in the world. That would be a very bad outcome.
But matters would be even worse if Washington endeavored to carry out its pledge. Such a move could easily lead to a clash with a nuclear-armed great power. That degree of risk should never be incurred except in the defense of America's most vital security interests. The security of three tiny nations on Russia's border doesn't even come close to meeting that test.
Bush probably believes that his pledge to the Lithuanians is an exercise in harmless -- and popular -- political symbolism. But it is much more serious. One of Bush's successors, as well as the American people, may have reason to regret his impetuous and ill-advised commitment.
-- Ted Galen Carpenter is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and is the author or editor of 14 books on international affairs including "Peace & Freedom: Foreign Policy for a Constitutional Republic."
-- Outside Views are written for UPI by outside writers who specialize in subjects of public interest.