Postcard from NATO summit: What are all these people doing in Chicago?

A chance encounter with a young Chicagoan forces a Monitor reporter to sum up – in about three sentences – all the hoo-ha in the Windy City over the NATO summit.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
Norway Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, center, poses with NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, left, and President Barack Obama on his arrival at the NATO summit in Chicago, Sunday, May 20.

The young woman at the H&M counter held back the bag of merchandise. “Can I ask you a question?” she said. “What is NATO?”

I had stopped in at the H&M on State Street after earlier discovering that my hotel had a swimming pool. I figured the Swedish budget emporium would have a swimsuit that wouldn’t break the bank (mission accomplished: basic trunks, $12.95). The sales clerk had her eye on my press credential, and the lanyard emblazoned with “NATO 2012 CHICAGO” that held it around my neck.

“It’s the military alliance that unites the US and European countries. They agree to defend each other from outside threats, and once in awhile the leaders meet,” was my paltry and unsatisfactory answer to her question.

She wanted to know more. “You said military?” she continued, still clutching my bag. “So why are they in Chicago?”  

It's a fair question. This is only the third time since NATO was formed in 1949 that the US has hosted a summit, and it is the first time ever for one to be held in an American city other than Washington.

Outside on State Street, the Chicago police were three or four to a corner, just in case a rogue anti-NATO protest flared up. Large swaths of the young clerk’s city were cordoned off, urban ghost towns set aside for President Obama and his guests. I could see what it was that had filled her with questions, why perhaps she had seized on the word “military.”

Besides that, the local press and TV seemed to be focused on the dangers and inconveniences the summit poses for the city – the anticipated, possibly violent demonstrations, the closed major thoroughfares – and less on the whats and whys of the big gathering.

So why Chicago? I told her I could imagine that the mayor, the president’s good friend, might have suggested it, and that Mr. Obama probably wanted to show off his hometown to this big group of foreigners. In fact he’d said as much as he greeted the NATO leaders.

To my surprise, there was one more question. Still smiling, still curious, she wanted to know what was so important that all these leaders would come to Chicago to discuss it. “Will they actually decide something?” she wondered.

Another good question. “Well, they’re going to talk a lot about Afghanistan, because the other NATO countries have soldiers fighting the war there, like we do,” I said.  

I was conscious of the line of customers ready to cash out. I sensed I was holding things up, but I also felt as if my answer was not yet good enough. “All the NATO countries have decided to have their soldiers out of Afghanistan within a couple of years, including us,” I said. “But Obama doesn’t want us to be left over there on our own, so he’s going to try to convince the others to stick around with us. So we’ll see.”

At that she handed over my bag. “OK, thanks for explaining that,” she said. “I didn’t know what all this was about,” she said, indicating “out there” with her eyes.

Then her next customer was at the counter, and I stepped outside.

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