The Fogh of War

Monday, October 26, 2009 at 10:43 am

Last week, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the secretary general of NATO, openly advocated a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan during a NATO defense ministerial conference. It was a curious position to take. The NATO secretary generalship is an institutionally weak position, commanding no ability to order allied countries to do anything, and has traditionally been awarded to a European civilian official, who rarely gets crosswise with the Americans. Yet here’s Rasmussen, the former prime minister of Denmark, putting pressure on President Obama. He even recorded a video.

To find out what Rasmussen’s deal is, I turned to Martin Krasnik, one of Denmark’s leading journalists. Krasnik reminds us that Rasmussen’s style has always been confrontational, as he had “no time for long discussions and slow compromises” as prime minister. But he did “revolutioniz[e] Danish small-state security policy by joining the Iraq war on a very tight parliamentary mandate,” Krasnik emailed me, “and being Europe’s most ardent supporter of George W. Bush.” To some degree, Rasmussen reflects his country on Afghanistan. “Danes are mysteriously supportive of the war,” Krasnik says, and their 700 troops aren’t in the safer areas of Afghanistan; they’re in Helmand Province, one of the most dangerous. But “no doubt, Rasmussen personally thinks that more troops are absolutely necessary. ”

Krasnik has been doing some reporting into Rasmussen’s already-controversial tenure as NATO secretary general, which is barely a year old. “He has bypassed NATO ambassadors on several occasions, discussing budget and Afghanistan strategy with defense ministers and not diplomats,” Krasnik said. “NATO ambassadors accuse him of being ‘out of control’ and ‘over confident’ — that is: not an empty suit looking for the middle ground between the members. ‘He will last 1 to 1.5 years tops,’ as one NATO diplomat told me the other day.”

Interestingly, one of the only NATO ambassadors to support Rasmussen is Ivo Daalder, Obama’s man in Brussels and a Hillary Rodham Clinton ally. “‘Fogh does what he is supposed to do. He is leading the alliance,” Dalder told a Danish newspaper this Saturday,” Krasnik said. That has led to speculation in Copenhagen that Rasmussen’s position comes with at least the tacit approval of the Obama administration. “My feeling is that he wouldn’t take a public stand like this just before the Bratislava meeting without clearing it with the U.S.,” Krasnik said. “One argument here is that Obama needs others than the GOP and army generals to ask for more troops, so why not the NATO-chief?”

The Wall Street Journal came to a similar conclusion. In a piece today reporting that Obama is leaning toward a “hybrid” counterterrorism/counterinsurgency approach, it quotes an anonymous official speculating that Rasmussen might not be pressuring Obama, but rather providing him with political cover to escalate:

“This may be part of an effort by the Obama administration to have the suggestion come from Europe first before the president makes a public commitment,” said one person who has discussed Afghan strategy with senior U.S. officials.

It’s unclear if NATO will then provide additional resources to the Afghanistan war. One alliance diplomat I spoke to last week said that the Europeans are lamenting somewhat their love affair with Obama, as it makes it difficult to deny him the politically difficult increase in NATO troops and other resources that Obama seeks. But it’s clear that Rasmussen, at least, will push them in that direction.

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