Denmark’s Anders Fogh Rasmussen officially takes over as head of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization tomorrow.   A Guardian editorial muses that he may be “The last NATO secretary general.”

Several outlets have the standard farewells and fact sheets. For example, Time‘s Randy James (“2 Minute Bio: Anders Fogh Rasmussen: NATO’s New Boss“) begins:

The popular center-right leader takes the reins as the deteriorating war in Afghanistan poses a serious test for the 60-year-old NATO alliance, which is managing the conflict. Rasmussen, 56, spent eight years in Copenhagen’s top office, most notably shepherding Denmark through the Muslim cartoon uproar of 2005 — which he called the nation’s greatest crisis since World War II. An avid Facebook user, Rasmussen recently visited a special-needs classroom following an online request from the teacher, a Facebook friend. To be successful in Brussels, he’ll need the support of plenty of real-world allies, as well.

Among the tidbits in the piece:

• Disagreeing with most of his nation, he supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq, augmenting the effort with 500 Danish troops. Shortly before the war began in 2003, a protester attacked him in the Danish Parliament, pouring red paint over the Prime Minister and shouting “You have blood on your hands.” The troops have since returned, though Denmark still has 700 fighters under NATO command in Afghanistan.

• His support for the war effort aside, Rasmussen has criticized the U.S. detention of enemy combatants in Guantánamo Bay and secret overseas prisons.

• Guided his country through the 2005 uproar sparked by the publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad by a Danish newspaper. He maintained that religions ought to be respected, but refused to meet with diplomats from Muslim nations or apologize on behalf of his country.

Bloomberg‘s James Neuger (“Rasmussen to Take Charge of NATO, Confront Afghanistan Impasse“) includes these factoids:

Rasmussen, 56, a former Danish prime minister, will take over from Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, 61, a Dutch diplomat who oversaw the escalation of the campaign in Afghanistan, the alliance’s first military venture outside Europe.

Founded in 1949 as a bulwark against the Soviet Union in the Cold War, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is staking its future on victory in Afghanistan — or at least on preventing the country, the launchpad for the Sept. 11 attacks, from turning back into a staging base for terrorism.

“NATO’s reputation is on the line,” said Theo Farrell, a professor of war studies at King’s College London. “If NATO can’t achieve an outcome from this campaign in the coming years which makes it look like there has been a successful conclusion, then you have to ask yourself what can NATO do?”

Reuters (“FACTBOX – Denmark’s Rasmussen to take over as NATO chief“) notes, among other things, that:

* Rasmussen has served three times as prime minister of Denmark and is the most senior politician to head the alliance.

* Born on Jan. 26, 1953, Rasmussen has a reputation for punctuality and meticulous planning. A fluent French speaker, he regularly spends holidays in France, and is married with two daughters and one son. In 2003, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said: “Rasmussen is the most handsome prime minister in Europe. I’m thinking of introducing him to my wife.”

By far the most provocative piece, however, is Ilana Bet-El‘s Guardian essay “The last Nato secretary general?” She argues, essentially, that the United States duped NATO into going to war in Afghanistan after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 and then both expanded the mission wildly and lost interest in the mission for several years and forcing the remaining allies to take over.

In the interim the Taliban both clawed back territory and reimposed itself upon the Afghan people – meaning that in many parts of the country the nature of the mission moved from security to intense military engagements.

It is important to understand these origins and chronology, which are usually absent from debate, since they explain the awful muddle in which Nato finds itself today in Afghanistan: it has not been there as an alliance since 2001, as many commentators tend to note, but rather since mid-2003, then straggling to “full” size over three years and endless disagreements among the allies. Moreover, it took until 2008 to develop a “strategic vision” for Isaf, which is still short of a clear military objective.

And while there are clear attempts on both sides of the Atlantic to let bygones be bygones, there remains a fundamental mistrust between the allies – not least over the leadership and purpose of the alliance. All of this is compounded by Nato’s archaic industrial war command and control structure – which is totally inadequate to running a modern war among the people – and the simple fact that there are neither enough troops nor hardware to fight a deep-seated enemy in a country the size of Afghanistan.

De Hoop Scheffer did his best to navigate these stormy waters, but he had neither the institutional power nor the charisma to convince the US and the reluctant Europeans of the need for basic coherence, let alone greater commitment and political will. As a sitting prime minister when elected, it is hoped Fogh Rasmussen will be able to cajole them all more effectively. With the intensified fighting and increased deaths, the signs are not too good – but if he fails, he may go down in history as the last Nato secretary general.

This strikes me as a wild overreach, albeit one that NATO leaders set up by constantly pleading that the Afghanistan mission was an existential test that the Alliance simply could not fail and survive.   That was always nonsense.  Countries lose wars — or lose interest in them — with some regularity and yet survive. The United States remained a superpower in the wake of Vietnam and went on to become even more dominant in world affairs.  Why can’t alliances do the same?

Rasmussen has a big task ahead of him, no doubt, but it’s hardly an impossible one.  As several participants noted in our recent New Atlanticist Roundtable, NATO’s demise has been forecast for decades.  The new general secretary will lead the Alliance through its 60th anniversary celebrations and beyond.  He’ll preside over the unveiling of a new Strategic Concept that will redefine NATO’s mission for the next several years.  What NATO will look like at the end of that process is the subject of much interesting speculation.  That it will continue to exist, however, is not in serious doubt.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. 

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