On NATO, Russia should pay attention to lawmakers’ support, not White House wavering

As President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo waver on NATO commitments, the House offers robust support. Russia should pay attention to lawmakers, not the loud voices coming from the White House.

Echoing some of Trump’s criticisms of NATO, Pompeo added renewed reasons to doubt that the U.S. would honor its treaty obligations on Wednesday. When asked during an interview with Fox News about U.S. defense of NATO member Montenegro, he responded, “I’m not going to get into hypotheticals about what might happen or how a certain scenario might unfold. But make no mistake about it: America has always been there when there were important American and global interests at stake.”

But defending Montenegro isn’t just a hypothetical — it’s an obligation under Article 5 of NATO, which provides for the collective defense of member states.

To date, the one and only time that NATO’s mutual defense provision, Article 5, has been invoked was in defense of the United States after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. That, of course, is the same part of the agreement that would compel the U.S. to come to the aid of fellow member Montenegro.

Pompeo’s lackluster support for and perhaps knowledge of this key provision stood in stark contrast to the clear support voiced on Capitol Hill on Tuesday. With robust, bipartisan legislation, the House of Representatives supported a bill that would prevent Trump from using federal funds to withdraw from NATO and set a formal policy that the U.S. will “remain a member in good standing.” It passed 357 to 22.

The House floor was full of impassioned speeches with lawmakers singing the praises of the alliance as well as its necessity.

Lawmakers heralded the long history of NATO. As Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas made clear, “Time and again the alliance has proven that the free peoples of the world are strongest when they stand together.” He added that NATO is “a bulwark against International terror.”

He’s right. NATO was originally founded to counter Soviet aggression and expansionism in Europe. The idea was if the Soviets knew that the territory it might want to pull behind the Iron Curtain had a protection guarantee from a powerful network of allies backed by the U.S., then Moscow would think twice before trying to claw territory into its communist dystopia.

Today, Russia under President Vladimir Putin is again looking to pull territory back into the Kremlin’s orbit. In Ukraine, Russia annexed Crimea and continues to wage war to claim portions of the country, in Georgia national boundaries have been moved under the cover of night to seize more land, and in Macedonia, Russia has been implicated in efforts to sink the vote that is helping to pave the way for the country to join NATO.

So far, however, that aggression has only been targeted at non-NATO members.

As Rep. Jimmy Panetta, D-Calif., who sponsored the bill, explained, “Moscow never went to war with a NATO power. We got bases and a guarantee that we would never have to fight alone … and everybody on the European continent got stability and peace to strengthen our democracies.”

But as a recent piece in the Atlantic on the Estonian border city of Narva points out, even cities within NATO countries could be vulnerable — especially if Russia feels that the U.S. would not honor its commitment to defend member nations.

That’s part of the reason why congressional support for the alliance is so important.

As Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., put it, “This bill … sends a clear message to the administration that this branch of government supports the alliance.”

That is a feeling echoed by the Senate where a similar bill has already been introduced that would require approval from Congress’s upper chamber for the president to leave NATO. That proposed legislation follows up last year’s Senate affirmation of NATO support with a motion supporting the international organization.

Those lawmakers are right, and Engel’s warning is not just for the Trump administration but for Moscow too. U.S. support for NATO is not so fickle as Trump’s tweets, and Russia should remember that before playing games in Europe.

Congress can check the president’s power, after all.

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