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Who will be the new NATO chief?

Oblique process takes on added importance with stepped up Afghanistan mission.

Denmark's Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen (right) and NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer talk to the media at Rasmussen's summer residence in Marienborg, northern Copenhagen Oct. 8, 2007. (Kristian Juul Pedersen/Reuters)

BRUSSELS — NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer refuses to talk about who might succeed him this summer after his five-year term ends.

“Nice try,” the discreet Dutchman said recently when a journalist asked him to make a tangential remark on one candidate. “You’ll not hear me do this at all.”

That’s okay — everyone else is talking about it for him.

The question of who will take the helm of the organization has become an unusually hot topic in the run-up to NATO’s 60th anniversary summit on April 3 and 4, laced with behind-the-scenes intrigue and high-stakes negotiations between capitals.

Though de Hoop Scheffer does not actually leave the job until July 31, there was a plan to present the new chief amid the fanfare of the summit. But with less than a week to go, the 26 NATO partners have been unable to pin down a successor.

The process of choosing a new secretary general is a little odd because even those who want the job say they don’t, no one is willing to speak openly about who is being considered, and the list of contenders is not formal, though it does gradually become public. Names mentioned early and often have included former British Defense Secretary Des Browne, Canadian Defense Minister Peter MacKay, Bulgarian parliamentarian Solomon Passy, Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski and Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoer.

Only Passy, considered among those least likely to be chosen, has openly declared himself a candidate for the post, even setting up a Facebook page promoting his suitability. On the contrary, the most popular possibilities — MacKay, Rasmussen and Sikorski — have publicly denied aspiring to the position.

Rasmussen has long been seen as the frontrunner. He is considered a solid statesman, able to bring different interests to consensus. He has the advantage of leading a European Union member state, which could help improve the often testy relationship between the EU and NATO, and he has good credentials with the Americans because Denmark sent troops to both Iraq and Afghanistan. Rasmussen also speaks fluent French, which is no small detail in this officially bilingual organization, especially with France rejoining the joint military command.

MacKay also is popular with the U.S. because of Canada’s strong contributions to the war in Afghanistan. In addition, Washington has long been interested in breaking the tradition of a European being named to the secretary general job. The Americans seemed so predisposed to MacKay that it was rumored Vice President Joe Biden would be personally pressing for the nomination when he visited NATO headquarters March 10.

It later was widely reported that Washington would throw its considerable weight behind Rasmussen, already said to be supported by Great Britain, France and Germany. Last weekend MacKay appeared to demote his own candidacy, saying he had a full agenda to take care of back in Canada.

Sikorski was always considered a bit too outspoken for the job. Sikorski received support from those who wanted the milestone of having a leader from one of the newer eastern European member states. But the Poles in general are very critical of Russia, so since it became clear that restoring and enhancing ties with Russia would be a NATO priority in the coming year, Sikorski has been considered out of the running.

As a result, it has basically come down to Rasmussen, and the competition has become both simpler and more complex. NATO decisions are taken by consensus and Turkey had long made clear it didn’t want Rasmussen in the top spot.