Sept. 13 2006 1:15 PM

Are You Willing to Die for Bialystok?

By Michael Specter
       Here's a little fairy tale brought to you by Bill Clinton:


      It is the autumn of 1998 and the people of Belarus are in revolt. It has been more than a decade since most of the country's farmland was poisoned forever by fallout from the nuclear accident at Chernobyl. This year, the harvest in the few regions where the grain won't kill you has been the worst since the 1920s, when Stalin introduced collectivization--and mass starvation.
       In the western half of the country, from Brest on the Polish border to Pinsk, the fear of hunger has caused panic and riots. Aleksandr Lukashenko, the erratic dictator once so popular with his people, has come unhinged and sent his presidential guard--2,000 stormtroopers really--to put down the insurrection.
 Vicious fighting breaks out. Russian leaders, appalled by Lukashenko but linked politically and militarily to Belarus by treaty and an abiding fear of the West, place their troops on alert. As they do, Lukashenko's forces pursue a rogue military unit five miles into Poland, a newly protected NATO country. Mortars fall and four Polish citizens die. Within the hour, American fighters are screeching across the skies above Bialystok and Russia is deciding whether to honor its commitment to defend her Slavic brothers.
       This couldn't happen right? The United States could not involve itself without debate in a war over a place few Americans even know exists. It's ludicrous, like that moronic summer film where President Harrison Ford saves the world by destroying a bunch of nuclear thugs from Kazakstan.
 If you believe that you better go buy a good map and a copy of the NATO charter. Thanks to one of his more thoughtless campaign promises, President Clinton has now ushered in the era when Americans--he calls it NATO but I think we know what that means--are required to risk their lives and national security to defend Poland from Belarus, or--should it come to that--Hungary from Slovenia. If you missed the public discussion of this epochal event, that's because there hardly was one.
       The Cold War is over, Russia is a withered, weak country that was recently defeated in a two-year war by a bunch of Chechen rebels who got most of their weapons for a few dollars from poverty-stricken and hungry Russian infantrymen.
       But like some billion dollar phantom limb, NATO is alive, and despite all the rhetoric about expanding democracies and the world community, NATO is essentially a military alliance. And it is a military alliance whose function is to defend Europe (and its friends) from Russia (and its friends). The decision last year to invite Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic to join that alliance was actually a decision to expand the borders of Maine, Texas and Connecticut to the edge of Eastern Europe.
 Check out the charter. Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty declares that an attack on one member is an attack on all of them. Bialystok IS Brooklyn.
       Assistance (with weapons) is required. The circumstances don't matter much, either because Article 5 doesn't provide much room for negotiation--no matter what the source of the threat happens to be. Here is how America's chief spokesman for NATO expansion, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, put it in a recent interview with the Voice of America. "If there were to be instability and conflict of any kind, whatever the origin of it, in Central or Eastern Europe, it would be a threat to the Continent as a whole."
 And that's where we come in. The problem is that--for better or worse--Americans don't really like to get involved. How many tens of thousands of atrocities were committed in Bosnia before the United States decided force was required as a response? Does anybody remember how many dead Marines (these are soldiers who volunteer to serve their country and are trained to fight) it took to pull us out of Somalia? It was 13.
       There are those that argue we must not rub Russia the wrong way by shoving our big guns down its atrophied throat. Otherwise it will be Versailles all over again. And there are those that cry that only ignorance would make us forget that when Germany attacked Poland on Sept. 1, 1939, most Parisians--let alone the even more distant Americans--wondered famously, "Why die for Gdansk?"
       But history does not always repeat; sometimes it moves on. This time if we need to die for Gdansk we should. There are even reasons to die for Bialystok. But shouldn't we get a choice? Is there really no middle ground between a willingness to fight a maniac in Belarus with nuclear weapons and America's historic solipsism? Let's hope the harvest is good next year in Minsk, or we may find out.

Michael Specter is a Moscow correspondent for the New York Times.