Who will be the new NATO chief?

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.

Ankara has a host of complaints about the Dane and is taking very seriously its role representing a range of other Muslim countries that have no veto to wield against him. As prime minister, Rasmussen refused to apologize when a Danish cartoonist outraged Muslims with caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed. Also, he has said European Union candidate Turkey should never become a member of the bloc. Finally, a Kurdish-run television channel is allowed to operate out of Denmark, which causes great consternation for the Turkish government.

“It is unacceptable that NATO be headed by an individual who has in the past rudely disrespected our values and religious beliefs,” senior Turkish official Suat Kiniklioglu has said. “He is a problematic man.”

The Transatlantic Institute’s Daniel Rackowski did not dismiss the Turks’ concerns. “It’s a big issue for countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan, where NATO has an active role,” he noted, “so NATO allies should ask themselves whether Rasmussen is the right guy for the post.”

But “it would be politically risky for Turkey to veto him,” Rackowski said. If Turkey held out against its 25 allies — most of whom are also members of the EU Turkey seeks to join — “what do they have to win?” Rackowski also pointed out that U.S. President Barack Obama will be in Ankara just a couple of days after the NATO summit, and Turkish reticence to support an otherwise uncontested pick could make that meeting uncomfortable at a time when the Turks want to shine.

But public statements from Turkish leaders in the final days ahead of the summit have done nothing to clear up the question of what they plan to do if the organization moves forward, as appears likely, on the Rasmussen nomination.

Visiting Brussels late last week, Turkish President Abdullah Gul said both that he wasn’t aware there were any official candidates for the post and that Turkey didn’t have “any attitude against the (Danish) prime minister or anyone else.”

At the same time, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the government had been receiving appeals from several Muslim states, asking Turkey to veto Rasmussen.

Rasmussen welcomed Gul’s comments that appeared to back down on blocking his nomination, while maintaining his refusal to confirm that he was, in fact, a candidate.

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