Anders Fogh Rasmussen is the prime minister of NATO. Officially he is the secretary general of the alliance, but Rasmussen, who was Denmark's prime minister for seven and a half years before being tapped for the position last year, is no more a "secretary" than Stalin's successors to the Soviet leadership were mere party secretaries. Rasmussen's predecessors were defense and foreign ministers, but not heads of government. The NATO chief does not settle for cautious coordination among the 28 members of the North Atlantic alliance. He is focused, decisive, a natural leader. The NATO summit in Lisbon this weekend will be Rasmussen's summit.
What a difference. In last year's summit, held in Strasbourg, France and Kehl, Germay the unrivaled star was Barack Obama. A fresh, engaging president heralded the possibility of something new and encouraging. He and his wife Michelle were the darlings of the rapturous crowd. A year and a half later, the Americans and their European partners awoke from their dream, and (at least from Obama's perspective ) entered a nightmare. The shine was off, the winner lost, his cohorts in Congress took an electoral beating and in this month's visit to Asia (including a stop at the G-20 ) he failed to impress.
In two days Obama will land in the capital of Portugal (whose financial crisis will require aid from the Euro bloc ) for two adjacent and even overlapping forums. The moment the NATO summit ends, several attendees will be among the participants in a top-level meeting between the U.S. and the European Union leadership. The left lobe may be NATO and the right the EU, but both are parts of the same brain. Obama is no savior (he will be lucky to be saved himself ), and those leaders who will attend are doing so not to celebrate victory but as a support group trying to figure out how to deal with their shared plight. With the seats of certain prime ministers shaky, and as some veteran foreign ministers found themselves suddenly removed from office, other people's troubles are the least of Washington's and Brussels' worries now.
Israel won't be represented at the NATO summit this time. The past few NATO summits devoted at least an hour's discussion or a working dinner to the Mediterranean Dialogue (a NATO forum including Egypt, Jordan, four North African states and Israel ), at the level of defense or foreign ministers at least. Now that body remains firmly on the margins, with nothing new to report. The Israeli-Arab conflict is yesterday's news - it will surely be back tomorrow, perhaps with a NATO force deployed east of the Palestinian-Israeli border - but it is not today's news.
The only non-NATO guests invited to this year's event are Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev - the latter considered one of Obama's best friends in Europe - in a sort of admission of the chilly relations between Obama and some of his Western counterparts, chiefly French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
On the agenda are NATO-Russia relations, the continuation through 2014 of military involvement in Afghanistan (despite cuts in European defense budgets and the the proposed merger of some British and French military capabilities ), the adoption of a new war strategy and improving missile defense. The exact name of the country threatening Europe with long-range missiles is kept hidden due to sensitivity on the part of NATO member Turkey, on whose soil the United States seeks to install a radar system.
The hostility of Recep Tayyip Erdogan's government to Israel is growing. In order to not irritate the Turks - whose membership gives them veto power over NATO's every decision, plans to have an Israel Navy Saar missile-boat join Operation Active Endeavor in the Mediterranean were put on hold. After Lisbon, Jerusalem expects Rasmussen, who is scheduled to speak at the Herzliya Conference next February, to find a solution to this little crisis and to add a bit more heft to NATO's relations with Israel.