Obama, the pragmatist, wins NATO kudos but few troops for Afghan mission

The US president got a ringing endorsement of his new Afghanistan strategy – but only 3,000 new, mostly non-combat troops.

Charles Dharapak/AP
US President Barack Obama, gestured, as he took a question from a member of the media, during his news conference at the NATO Summit in Strasbourg, France, on Saturday.

It was the pragmatic compromise of a new US president whose early priority overseas is rebuilding relations. Three months into office, and at Barack Obama's debut NATO summit, the White House spent its capital shoring up the Atlantic alliance, building trust with NATO partners, and securing an Afghan commitment – rather than pushing hard for a sizeable fighting force deployed to the Hindu Kush.

In the end, that's what President Obama got at NATO's 60th anniversary: a ringing endorsement by France and Germany of his new Afghanistan strategy – but only 3,000 new, mostly non-combat troops for a mission that remains a political hazard here, along with $600 million in assistance.

"If you push too hard and ask too much, you risk a repeat of the Bush-years' bruised feelings in Europe, and risk an unraveling of the coalition now in Afghanistan," says Charles Kupchan, a Europe specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. "The White House made a start. They said, 'Let's accept less than what we might want right now, to ensure NATO stays put in Afghanistan.' "

The White House strategy aims to balance civil and military operations and bolster the Afghan police and Army en route to a responsible drawdown of NATO forces. The White House affirmed publicly in Strasbourg that it needs help, though in a final statement Obama noted, "This was not a pledging conference," and accentuated the positive aspects of Europe's promise for trainers and funding, calling it a "strong down payment on the future of our mission in Afghanistan ... and NATO."

Fréderic Bozo, a transatlantic expert at the Sorbonne in Paris, said it was "clear for weeks there would be no military increase coming from Europe.... The Obama administration made a virtue of necessity."

In post-NATO summit editorials, two British papers, the Sunday Times and the Telegraph, chided the alliance for not giving the White House more military assistance in support of its strategy. "The truth is that the United States, with the strong backing of a minority of NATO members, including Britain, is not being adequately supported by the rest of NATO," the Times stated.

Diplomacy success

In diplomatic terms, the summit appeared to go swimmingly – though antiwar protesters turned central Strasbourg into a ghost town on Saturday. French police cracked down on protesters trying to gain access to a bridge over the Rhine – the border of France and Germany, where French president Nicolas Sarkozy and German chancellor Angela Merkel had a symbolic meeting.

Atmospherically, the summit was a polar opposite of the 2008 meeting in Bucharest, marked by sharp comments by then-President George W. Bush at a final dinner, when the alliance refused to offer a direct invitation to Georgia and Ukraine. Europe, Germany in particular, had signaled for more than a year prior to the summit that Ukraine and Georgia's entry into NATO was non-negotiable. Bringing those two into NATO would be seen as a provocation to Russia, they reasoned. But the Americans put on a last-minute offensive that was rebuffed.

Danish cartoons lead to drama – again

The only drama this year came when the candidate to replace the outgoing Dutchman Jaap de Hoop Scheffer as NATO's new secretary-general – Denmark's prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen – appeared stalemated by Turkish president Abdullah Gul.

The choice of the Danish prime minister, who in 2005-06 supported the right of Danish newspapers to print satirical cartoons of the prophet Muhammed, was objected to by Ankara – NATO's only Muslim-majority member – as offensive and a possible provocation in Afghanistan.

Both Europe and the US supported Mr. Rasmussen. Mrs. Merkel, according to a Scandinavian diplomat familiar with the negotiations, told Mr. Gul that Turkey's position on the matter would harm its accession process as an EU member. France's Sarkozy described free speech as a basic human right in Europe that could not be compromised.

The final NATO press conference was put on hold, and several diplomats told reporters that Rasmussen would not be approved. Eventually, according to US officials, it was Obama who did some quick shuttle diplomacy in two corners of the meeting room – working an agreement that has Rasmussen going to a conference on civilization in Turkey this week, and giving a post to Turkey in the new secretary-general's office. The way was also apparently paved by a long conversation between Turkish prime minister Erdogan and Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, with the latter being phoned by the former as he stepped into a meeting with Merkel.

Two hours later, Rasmussen and Mr. de Hoop Scheffer appeared on stage, with the Dane grinning widely and at one point leaning collegially on his Dutch colleague.

Obama stirs allies by backing Turkey's EU bid

Some of the drama continued into Sunday, with the White House backing Turkey's eventual EU membership. Turkey, Obama's last stop on his European tour, has been seeking EU membership for decades, and its application is moving glacially through Brussels.

Obama's backing of Turkey was disavowed by today by France and Germany. As a presidential candidate, Sarkozy had clearly stated his opposition to Turkish EU membership, a diplomatic break with previous French policy, saying that Turkey was culturally not part of Europe. Merkel has been more circumspect in her position.

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