Washington, 4 July 1997 (RFE/RL) - President Bill Clinton leaves tonight on what the White House is calling "a historic trip" to Europe to end three years of debate and begin NATO expansion.
But statements in Washington make clear that, although the outcome is not in doubt, the debate is far from over and may well continue at an intense pitch in the summit halls and corridors in Madrid until the end of a key session next Tuesday afternoon.
White House spokesman Michael McCurry said Thursday that "by the end of that day, NATO will be expanded and the process of adapting NATO for the 21st century will be well underway."
But he admitted that there is no consensus yet among the 16 NATO members on whether to keep the number of invitations into NATO to three countries as the U.S. wishes, or five as France and other allies want.
McCurry said NATO heads of state will have a serious discussion about it and that Clinton will not change his mind but he will "listen carefully and respectfully to the arguments of other leaders."
Clinton told reporters Thursday that he foresees no circumstances that could make him change his position. He also said that some leaders who publicly support five new members have assured him privately that they will agree to the three in Madrid.
McCurry said that in Madrid, the U.S. wants a thorough airing of all views on what will be a great undertaking.
He said that adding members to NATO is "a solemn obligation that these leaders undertake and...they will have a very good textured discussion not only about the decision" but also about NATO's structure and function in the 21st century.
At the State Department, spokesman Nicholas Burns said the U.S. is working hard to get agreement from allies to support Washington's position that only Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic should be invited to join the alliance at this time, leaving the question of Romanian and Slovenian NATO membership for later.
Clinton gave a clearer indication than before of U.S. thinking on a second round of NATO expansion, saying NATO should keep the door open for other nations and take another look at the issue in 1999.
He and his wife Hillary will arrive in Madrid Monday after a private weekend of relaxation on the island of Majorca where they will be guests of Spain's King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia.
The summit officially opens Tuesday but several important meetings are planned beforehand on Monday. Clinton is scheduled to meet NATO Secretary General Javier Solana, who is officially the lead negotiator on NATO enlargement.
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Defense Secretary William Cohen who are travelling separately to Madrid also have meetings on Monday. Albright has another chance for diplomacy at a dinner with NATO foreign ministers on Monday night.
The summit opens formally 9:30 a.m. Tuesday. After the morning plenary session, participants expect to break into groups for a working lunch.
They plan to convene the all-important afternoon plenary session shortly before 3 p.m. U.S. officials said it will begin with a statement by U.S. Senator William Roth (R-Delaware) who is also chairman of NATO's political arm, the North Atlantic Assembly.
Roth has spoken previously in favor of admitting four new members into NATO, backing Slovenia as the fourth country.
U.S. officials say that as soon as the 16 leaders reach a decision they will adjourn the session and make the announcement and later toast it at a ceremonial dinner.
The highlight of the second day of summitry on Wednesday will be a signing ceremony in the morning of a NATO-Ukrainian charter.
McCurry said in some respects it is similar to the NATO-Russia Founding Act but went on to stress that it has "unique aspects," without elaborating. He added that the document "is designed to indicate the seriousness that the alliance attaches to its relationship with Ukraine."
The White House is sending Cohen to Kyiv after the Madrid summit to underscore how important Ukraine is to the United States.
He will be making other stops in Europe as will Clinton and Albright before they return to Washington.
Burns at the State Department said the message of Madrid will be heard directly from top officials of the United States and that the purpose of their trips to a combined total of ten cities in central and southern Europe is "to make sure that our friends are absolutely clear about NATO's intentions and that NATO remains open to further expansion."
Cohen will travel to Ukraine after stopping first in Hungary for talks with President Arpad Goncz and a meeting with Hungarian parliamentarians.
He is scheduled to leave for Kyiv from Budapest on Friday, July 11. The U.S. Defense Department says he will have meetings with president Leonid Kuchma and attend the closing ceremony of Partnership for Peace military exercises dubbed "Cooperative Neighbor."
Cohen also plans to meet RADA members to discuss military cooperation and other aspects of U.S.-Ukrainian ties.
A senior U.S. defense official said Ukraine will host other Partnership exercises and that a naval exercise called "Sea Breeze" will take place later this summer.
Cohen is scheduled to leave Ukraine for Bulgaria, travelling to Sofia on July 13, also to meet Bulgarian leaders and legislators. He is scheduled to conclude his visit there with a speech at the Atlantic Club in Sofia that Sunday night, flying back to washington the following day, July 14.