Challenges aplenty as ex-Danish premier takes over at NATO

3rd August 2009, Comments 0 comments

An enthusiastic sportsman, the 56-year-old Dane must hit the ground running Monday, under pressure to prove he is neither leading a crusade against Muslims nor turning the world's biggest military club into a global policeman.

Brussels -- Former Danish premier Anders Fogh Rasmussen takes charge at NATO next week faced with a daunting insurgency in Afghanistan and the massive task of reshaping the alliance's future role.

An enthusiastic sportsman, the 56-year-old Dane must hit the ground running Monday, under pressure to prove he is neither leading a crusade against Muslims nor turning the world's biggest military club into a global policeman.

He must help rekindle icy ties with Russia, still seething that a Cold War foe is closing in on its borders, and ensure that thousands of NATO troops are eased out of Kosovo without re-igniting the ethnic tinderbox.

"I will need to be well rested as there is an extremely hectic programme starting on August 3," Rasmussen said, in an entry on his Internet Facebook page last month, before heading off to France on holiday.

Yet as he watches over the war-fighting, peace-making and problem-solving, the Muslim world will watch over his shoulder, wary of his refusal to halt publication in Denmark of cartoons satirising Islam's Prophet Mohammed.

Only the intervention of US President Barack Obama at a summit in April overcame Turkish objections to his candidature, as religion forced its way into NATO's calculations in a way rarely seen before.

Indeed Ankara will insist he make good on a pledge to develop a dialogue with the Muslim world during his four-year tenure as NATO's top civilian official.

In a sign of his intentions, Rasmussen -- a liberal who led three consecutive centre-right governments -- has brought in Jesper Vahr, the Danish envoy to Turkey, to run his office and act as special advisor.

More pressing though is Afghanistan, with elections in three weeks which will test NATO's resolve to foster democracy and reconstruction, six years after it took the lead in international military operations there.

The Taliban, backed by Al Qaeda fighters, drug runners and criminal gangs, has called on Afghans to boycott the August 20 presidential and provincial polls, and wage holy war against the roughly 90,000 foreign troops there.

"If we were to walk away, Afghanistan would fall to the Taliban, with devastating effect for the people there -- women in particular," current NATO chief Jaap de Hoop Scheffer warned in a major speech before stepping down.

"Pakistan would suffer the consequences, with all that that implies for international security. Central Asia would see extremism spread. Al Qaeda would have a free run again, and their terrorist ambitions are global," he said.

Rasmussen will have longer to supervise the drafting of NATO's mission statement -- the all-encompassing Strategic Concept, which equips the alliance to face security challenges and guides political and military development.

He is due to unveil it at NATO's summit in Portugal next autumn.

The update of the decade-old text will have to take into account threats from cyber attack, climate change and energy security, as well as the evolution in terrorism since the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States.

A deft hand will be required to breathe new life into the NATO-Russia Council, the forum where Moscow and the alliance cooperate and air their many differences, amid deep tensions over the war in Georgia a year ago.

While Scheffer joined a NATO in 2004 riven by the Iraq war, Rasmussen has to handle a similar cleavage over Russia, with France and Germany notably opposed to the US-backed NATO candidacies of former Soviet Georgia and Ukraine.

Despite the formidable challenges, diplomats are optimistic that the first head of government to take the top NATO job will be up to it.

"He has demonstrated his ability to manoeuvre. Seven years as a prime minister isn't too bad," noted one. "He's an astute politician."

AFP/Expatica

0 Comments To This Article