A very small group of officials and policy experts at the time, myself included, asked the same question, but we drowned.
The only and most important voice in the Clinton administration who asked this question was Secretary of Defense Bill Perry. Recalling that moment years later, Perry said in 2016 at a conference for The Guardian:
In the past few years, most of the blame can be placed on the actions of Putin. But in the early years, I must say, the United States deserves a lot of blame. The first thing we really took in a bad direction was when NATO started expanding, bringing in countries from Eastern Europe, some of them on Russia’s borders.
“At that time, we were working closely with Russia and they started to get used to the idea that NATO could be a friend and not a foe…but they were very uncomfortable with having NATO right on their border and they made a force that appeals to us not to go forward with that.”
On May 2, 1998, right after the Senate ratified NATO expansion, I called George Kennan, the architect of America’s successful containment of the Soviet Union. After joining the State Department in 1926 and serving as the United States Ambassador to Moscow in 1952, Kennan was arguably America’s greatest expert on Russia. Although he was 94 years old at the time and had a weak voice, he was sharp in mind when I asked for his opinion on NATO expansion.
I’ll share Keenan’s full answer:
I think it is the beginning of a new cold war. I think that the Russians will gradually act in the opposite direction and this will affect their policies. I think it was a tragic mistake. There was absolutely no reason for this. No one was threatening anyone else. This expansion will make the founding fathers of this country turn in their graves.
“We signed the agreement to protect a whole group of countries, even though we have neither the resources nor the intent to do so in any serious way. [NATO expansion] It was just a minor action by the Senate which had no real interest in foreign affairs. What bothers me is how superficial and disappointing the whole Senate debate is. I was particularly bothered by references to Russia as a country dying to attack Western Europe.
“Do people not understand? Our Cold War differences were with the Soviet communist regime. Now we are turning our backs on the people who made the largest bloodless revolution in history to remove that Soviet regime. And democracy in Russia is as advanced, if not further, than any of these countries we have just recorded To defend it from Russia. Of course there will be a bad reaction from Russia, and then [the NATO expanders] He will say that we have always told you that this is how the Russians are – but that it is just a mistake. ”