Vice President Joe Biden wandered a little off course on a trip down memory lane today.
“Fifteen years ago, I was honored, as the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, to lead the fight for Poland’s admission into NATO,” Biden said in Warsaw during a visit designed to reassure America’s Eastern European allies in the wake of Russia’s move to take control of Crimea.
The only problem: Biden wasn’t chairman back then.
It was Sen. Jesse Helms, a North Carolina Republican, who guided the committee and launched the floor debate on granting NATO accession to Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. Biden did lead minority Democrats in approving the treaty resolution, after having initially expressed doubts about the political viability of expanding NATO.
“If we are really going to alienate the Russians,” Biden asked in January 1997, according to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, “what are we going to get for it?”
Biden went on to make the point that it needed more public discourse — which it got before he signed on — to have any chance of winning popular support.
“Right now, if I stand up and start talking with my constituents about the price, if I tell them, ‘We are about to extend our nuclear umbrella to Slovakia,’ I wonder how many people in Dagsboro, Del., are going to say, ‘Hey, that’s a great idea.’”
By the time the Senate was ready to debate the treaty in committee and on the floor, Biden had become an ardent advocate for its approval.
“The committee, under Chairman Helms’ leadership, has been holding a series of comprehensive hearings since October on the pros and cons of enlarging NATO,” Biden said on the floor Feb. 11, 1998. “For 40 years, the United States loudly proclaimed its solidarity with the captive nations of Central and Eastern Europe who were under the heel of communist oppressors. Now that most of them have cast off their shackles, it is our responsibility, in my view, to live up to our pledges to readmit them into the West through NATO and the European Union as they qualify.”