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Man on a mission

Anders Fogh Rasmussen has laid out his priorities as head of the NATO alliance, and touched on his troubled past.

“I’m not a dreamer,” Rasmussen said. “It is obvious that there will be fundamental issues on which we disagree. We have to insist, for example, that Russia fully complies with its international obligations, including respecting the territorial integrity and political freedom of its neighbors.”

He said, however, that he did not want this and other disagreements with Moscow to “poison the whole relationship.”

NATO and the Muslim world

Finally, Rasmussen showed he would deal head-on with a problem that has plagued him professionally, including in his ascent to this position: his reputation in the Muslim world. As Danish prime minister, Rasmussen refused to apologize when a newspaper in his country was the first to run a series of controversial caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. He cited the right to freedom of expression as the reason for not stepping in to calm the uproar.

The matter remains sensitive enough that Muslim countries, represented by NATO member Turkey, said they would not accept Rasmussen if he were made secretary general. The stalemate was only overcome in April once Turkey was promised that one of Rasmussen’s deputies would be Turkish and that there would be more Turks inside NATO’s command structure.

Rasmussen also said he would be willing to force the closure of Roj TV — a station based in Denmark which Turks say is aligned with separatist Turkish Kurds — if a Danish court found the channel guilty of having terrorist links.

Many Muslims, however, are still waiting for him to apologize, which is highly unlikely. What he does plan to do is to spend a lot of time listening to Muslim partner countries for other ways to improve cooperation between them and NATO. Rasmussen said he's already invited ambassadors in for private chats as he considers next steps for the alliance and himself.

But there are doubts this will be enough to ensure Rasmussen’s acceptance. Omer Taspinar, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and a columnist in the Turkish “Today’s Zaman” newspaper, is among the skeptics.

“The Muslim world is not a monolith,” Taspinar explained. “My sense is that even secular types see a kind of insensitivity and arrogance in the selection of Rasmussen as secretary general, especially at a time when NATO is involved in a crucial mission in the heart of the Islamic world. Short of a clear and heartfelt apology, I don't see Turkish, Arab, Pakistani and even Indonesian public opinion warming up to Rasmussen.”

The new NATO chief is nonetheless preparing to hear that for himself; he says one of his first trips will be to Turkey.