Obama turns on the charm to get Nato deal through


The US president’s role in resolving a dispute over Nato’s next secretary general may leave the greatest mark, writes DEREK SCALLYin Berlin

AT THE end of his marathon European tour, US president Barack Obama has proven wrong the old German warning against taking on too much at once: “trying to dance at every wedding”.

From London to Strasbourg and Prague to Ankara, Obama has run the policy gamut from economic stimulants to nuclear disarmament. But it was his Nato summit intervention that may leave the greatest mark on transatlantic relations.

On Friday afternoon, Chancellor Angela Merkel dropped unusually heavy hints that leaders would agree on Anders Fogh Rasmussen as new secretary general over a working dinner.

When the dinner broke up without agreement, everyone knew it was because of Turkish objections. In the Nato world of unanimous decision-making, Ankara had the power to embarrass Paris and Berlin at their own summit supposed to demonstrate the health of the 60-year-old alliance.

Turkish president Abdullah Gül, leading the delegation in Strasbourg, said he had no objections to Rasmussen. From Ankara, however, Turkey’s prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan reiterated a claim that Rasmussen was unpopular in the Muslim world because of his decision during the Muhammad caricature row to put freedom of speech ahead of respect for Islam.

Further objections were raised to a Denmark-based Kurdish television station with reported links to the terrorist PKK group.

Lingering in the background was resentment over Rasmussen’s opposition to Turkey’s EU accession. That view is shared by Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy and left them in a weak negotiating position with Erdogan.

On Saturday afternoon, when talks ended with still no agreement, leaders asked their advisers to leave the room. Then the gloves came off and Gül was left in no doubt over what the other Nato members thought of Turkey’s veto threat.

Nearly three hours later than planned, outgoing secretary Jaap de Hoop Scheffer appeared to announce that the deal was done.

But the general agreement in Strasbourg was that it was Obama who did the deal.

Though only lukewarm on the Danish leader, Washington agreed to support the candidate backed by London, Berlin and Paris.

Before official talks began on Saturday, Obama brought together Rasmussen and Gül to broker a compromise, further details of which may emerge when Obama arrives in Ankara today.

The relief among French and German officials in Strasbourg was obvious, along with the realisation that, as one put it, “Obama has charmed us into a corner.”

The charming began at the G20 in London with a concession from the president that America had triggered the financial crisis. Then, in Strasbourg, Obama praised European engagement in Afghanistan and studiously declined to make explicit demands for more combat troops.

The Washington logic is that, if the Europeans won’t be pressurised into sharing the heavy lifting in Afghanistan, they won’t be pressurised. But by agreeing to European demands for Nato partnership instead of US unilateralism, Washington feels it has put the ball in Europe’s court.

And, as Obama hinted on Friday, Europe no longer can cite displeasure with the cowboy language of George Bush as an excuse not to act.

At the closing press conference in Strasbourg, the president dropped hints to any European leaders listening that, well, they owe him.

“There’s got to be mutuality in the transatlantic relationship,” joked Obama after agreeing to accept questions from non-US journalists.

Asked what he had learned about European politics after his trip, he said it was “not that different” to Washington “wheeling and dealing”.

“People are pursuing their interests,” he said, “and everybody has their own particular issues and their own particular politics.”