Opinion: Obama: New NATO coming, shape and strategy TBD

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President Obama had NATO’s new secretary-general into the Oval Office today for one of his patented one-way media availabilities: You can watch but no questions.

For those of you who think ‘duck and cover’ has something to do with feather-filled blankets, we’ll remind that NATO was formed in the tumultuous, frightening aftermath years of World War II when Stalin and the Soviet Union took over Eastern Europe and American schoolchildren were taught to hide under school desks in the event of nuclear annihilation at any moment.


NATO (or OTAN si vous parlez francais) was formed in 1949 and was initially a political association. Later, as the Cold War became colder and North Korea invaded the South, it became a military organization providing mutual defense for members, although the French were dubious for a long while.

In the 1990s, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization became involved in the Balkan fighting. Its membership has expanded to Eastern Europe. And the treaty organization now has national forces in Afghanistan, which is about as far as you can get from the North Atlantic. Hence, the ongoing review of its purpose and mission referenced today by Obama and his guest.

Talking about reassessments, note on the news video below how carefully...

... Obama and NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen describe the struggle in Afghanistan. Lots of talk about dismantling and destroying the Al Qaeda network and ‘working with the Afghan government’ to provide necessary security. They can see the U.S. polls showing collapsing support for the war there, as 9/11 memories dim. What was missing today? No mention of crushing the Taliban, the original bad guys chased from power in 2001. No talk about building a functional democracy in that tribal land. We’ll be hearing more along those lines in coming weeks as Obama seeks to avoid huge new U.S. troop commitments.

-- Andrew Malcolm

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Oval Office remarks by President Obama and NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Hello, everybody. I just want to welcome Secretary-General Rasmussen to the Oval Office. He and I had the opportunity to get to know each other at the NATO summit in Strasbourg, at which he was nominated and then selected as the new secretary-general of NATO.

I can say that, given his experience as a head of state, that everybody had confidence in his decisive and effective leadership abilities. That confidence has proven justified. In the brief time that he has been in NATO, I think he’s already shown himself to be an active and effective secretary-general, interested in reforming and renewing the NATO alliance, and always rooted in the understanding that this is the most successful military alliance in history and the cornerstone of transatlantic relationships.

We had a very fruitful discussion while he was here. We talked about, obviously, the most important NATO mission right now, and that is Afghanistan. And we both agree that it is absolutely critical that we are successful in dismantling, disrupting, destroying the Al Qaeda network, and that we are effectively working with the Afghan government to provide the security necessary for that country.

This is not a American battle; this is a NATO mission, as well. And we are working actively and diligently to consult with NATO at every step of the way. And I’m very grateful for the leadership that Secretary-General Rasmussen has shown in committing NATO to a full partnership in this process.

We also discussed missile defense, and we both agreed that the configuration that we have proposed is one that ultimately will serve the interests of not only the United States, but also NATO alliance members most effectively. It allows for a full collaboration with NATO members, and we are very optimistic that it will achieve our aims and deal with the very real threat of ballistic missiles.

We also agree that it is important for us to reach out to Russia and explore ways in which the missile defense configurations that we envision could potentially lead to further collaboration with Russia on this front; and that we want to improve generally not only U.S.-Russian relations, but also NATO-Russian relations, while making absolutely clear that ...

... our commitments to all of our allies in NATO is sacrosanct and that our commitment to Article 5 continues.

Finally, we discussed the process that we’re putting forward for a strategic concept review. NATO has been so successful that sometimes I think that we forget this was shaped and crafted for a 20th century landscape. We’re now well into the 21st century, and that means that we are going to have to constantly renew and revitalize NATO to meet current threats and not just past threats.

There has been a process that has been put forward; we are fully supportive of it. I am confident that under Secretary-General Rasmussen’s leadership that it will ultimately be successful, and that we will continue to see NATO operate in a way that is good for U.S. national security interests, good for our allies, and good for the world.

So, Mr. Secretary-General, thank you for the excellent work that you’re doing and we appreciate it very much. And please feel free to share a few words.

SECRETARY-GENERAL RASMUSSEN: Thank you very much, Mr. President, for your kind words.

The president and I have had a very constructive meeting. I have thanked the president for his strong support. I look very much forward to cooperating with the president and his administration on reforming, transforming and modernizing NATO. We are going to elaborate a new strategic concept, which I hope can serve as leverage for renewal of NATO.

Of course, our main focus today has been our cooperation in Afghanistan. I say ‘our’ focus deliberately because our operation in Afghanistan is not America’s responsibility or burden alone. It is and it will remain a team effort.

I agree with President Obama in his approach: strategy first, then resources. The first thing is not numbers. It is to find and fine-tune the right approach to implement the strategy already laid down, and all NATO allies are right now looking at McChrystal’s review.

I’m convinced that success in Afghanistan is achievable and will be achieved. And don’t make any mistake -- the normal discussion on the right approach should not be misinterpreted as lack of resolve. This alliance will stand united and we will stay in Afghanistan as long as it takes to finish our job.

As the president mentioned, we have also discussed missile defense. I welcome the new U.S. approach, which will allow all allies to participate, which will protect all allies. And in fact, I think the proposed new system can serve as an instrument to bind all allies -- new and old -- even stronger together. Thank you.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Thank you so much. All right, thank you, everybody. ###