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Outside View: Cheney's useless allies

By TED GALEN CARPENTER, UPI Outside View Contributor

WASHINGTON, May 26 (UPI) -- During a recent visit to the Balkans, Vice President Dick Cheney endorsed the aspirations of Croatia, Albania, and Macedonia to join NATO. That is a spectacularly bad idea. Those three nations would contribute nothing to improving the security of the United States. All they would do is create yet another set of potential headaches for Washington.

NATO was once a serious alliance with a serious purpose. Throughout the Cold War, it was the mechanism that prevented the Soviet Union from intimidating or (less likely) invading democratic Western Europe -- a region of considerable strategic and economic importance. True, the United States was always the dominant player in the alliance, but Washington could count on credible secondary military powers, most notably Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Turkey. NATO may not have been the ideal instrument for U.S. interests, since it did allow the European allies to under-invest in defense and sometimes free-ride on the U.S. defense guarantee, but the alliance at least arguably served America's security.

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Since the end of the Cold War, that is no longer true. In particular, the new members that the alliance has admitted are little more than weak client states that expect the United States to defend them. That was true even of the first round of expansion that added Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary. It was more evident in the second round that added such military powerhouses as Slovakia, Slovenia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia.

Taking on the obligation to defend the latter three countries was especially unwise, because Washington now poses a direct geopolitical challenge to Russia right on Moscow's doorstep. Relations between Russia and its small Baltic neighbors are testy, to put it mildly. At the moment, Russia may be too weak to challenge the U.S./NATO security commitment to those countries, but we cannot be certain that will always be true.

Cheney's endorsement of NATO membership for Croatia, Albania, and Macedonia confirms that the alliance has now entered the realm of farce. The military capabilities of those three countries are minuscule. According to the most recent edition of The Military Balance, published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Croatia's military budget is a mere $626 million, and its military force consists of 20,800 active-duty personnel. Albania's budget is $116 million, and its force is 21,500. For Macedonia, the figures are $129 million and 10,890 personnel.

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Collectively, the three countries spend less on their militaries in a year than the United States spends in Iraq in four days. How adding such military pygmies to NATO is supposed to enhance the security of the United States is truly a mystery.

But these proposed allies are not merely useless, they are potentially an embarrassment to the alliance, if not a danger. When Cheney asserts that the three Balkan countries would help "rejuvenate" NATO and rededicate the alliance to the values of freedom and democracy, he is out of touch with reality.

Croatia is just a few years removed from the fascistic regime of Franjo Tudjman. Albania is notorious for being under the influence of organized crime. Indeed, the Albanian mafia is legendary throughout southeastern Europe, controlling the bulk of gambling, prostitution, and drug trafficking. Macedonia has a huge problem with its Albanian minority in the north and west of the country. The Albanian inhabitants there have sought a degree of political autonomy that amounts to independence in everything but name. Indeed, serious questions remain about the proper location of the border between Macedonia and predominantly Albanian Kosovo-a province of Serbia that has been under international occupation since NATO's 1999 air war against Serbia, and which is likely to be granted independence within the next few years.

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It is baffling why NATO (and especially the United States as the leader of the alliance) would want to take on such members and their problems. That is a policy that should appeal only to masochists.

NATO is fast becoming a parody of itself. It is increasingly a combination political honor society and geopolitical babysitting club. The prospective admission of the three Balkan countries confirms that the alliance has outlived any usefulness it once had. Someone should take the merciful step and put NATO out of its misery.

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(Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies, is the author of seven books and the editor of ten books on international affairs, including five books on NATO. He is also a founding member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy.)

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(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

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