By: Denise Simon
In recent days, Barack Obama has been cozy with the president of Afghanistan, Ghani granted him the favor of extending the deployments of troops in the Afghan theater. Ashraf Ghani is visiting the White House and giving a speech to Congress that is full of gratitude for the United States commitment to the country.
This raises Obama’s reputation in dealing with foreign affairs, but does it really? When applied to matters in the Middle East, the Far East and Europe, his attention to nurturing those relationships continue to dive.
The NATO General Secretary, Jens Stoltenberg is in town for 3 days to deal with the crisis in Ukraine that is spilling over to Europe, the Baltic States and Ukraine. Obama has no time to meet with him, zero. The question is why?
President Barack Obama has yet to meet with the new head of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and won’t see Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg this week, even though he is in Washington for three days. Stoltenberg’s office requested a meeting with Obama well in advance of the visit, but never heard anything from the White House, two sources close to the NATO chief told me.
The leaders of almost all the other 28 NATO member countries have made time for Stoltenberg since he took over the world’s largest military alliance in October. Stoltenberg, twice the prime minister of Norway, met Monday with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Ottawa to discuss the threat of the Islamic State and the crisis in Ukraine, two issues near the top of Obama’s agenda.
Kurt Volker, who served as the U.S. permanent representative to NATO under both President George W. Bush and Obama, said the president broke a long tradition. “The Bush administration held a firm line that if the NATO secretary general came to town, he would be seen by the president … so as not to diminish his stature or authority,” he told me.
America’s commitment to defend its NATO allies is its biggest treaty obligation, said Volker, adding that European security is at its most perilous moment since the Cold War. Russia has moved troops and weapons into eastern Ukraine, annexed Crimea, placed nuclear-capable missiles in striking distance of NATO allies, flown strategic-bomber mock runs in the North Atlantic, practiced attack approaches on the U.K. and Sweden, and this week threatened to aim nuclear missiles at Denmark’s warships.
“It is hard for me to believe that the president of the United States has not found the time to meet with the current secretary general of NATO given the magnitude of what this implies, and the responsibilities of his office,” Volker said.
Bernadette Meehan, a spokeswoman for the National Security Council, declined to say why Obama didn’t respond to Stoltenberg’s request. “We don’t have any meetings to announce at this time,” she told me in a statement. Sources told me that Stoltenberg was able to arrange a last-minute meeting with Defense Secretary Ashton Carter.
According to White House press releases, Obama didn’t exactly have a packed schedule. On Tuesday, he held important meetings and a press conference with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at the White House (Ghani will meet with Stoltenberg while they are both in town). But the only event on Obama’s public schedule for Wednesday is a short speech to kick off a meeting related to the Affordable Care Act. On Thursday, he will head to Alabama to give a speech about the economy.
Stoltenberg is in town primarily for the NATO Transformation Seminar, a once-a-year strategic brainstorming session that brings together NATO’s leadership with experts and top officials from the host country. The event is organized by the Allied Command Transformation in Norfolk, Virginia, and the Atlantic Council.
“The focus of this year’s seminar is to think through how best to update NATO’s strategy given real threats in the east and the south, against the backdrop of a dramatically changing world,” said Damon Wilson, a former NSC senior director for Europe who is now with the Atlantic Council. “The practical focus is to begin developing the road map to the next NATO summit, which will take place in Warsaw in July 2016, a summit which will presumably be the capstone and last summit for the Obama administration.”
Last year, the seminar was hosted in Paris, and then-NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen got a separate bilateral meeting with President Francois Hollande of France.
Last Friday, at the German Marshall Fund Brussels Forum, Stoltenberg talked about the importance of close coordination inside NATO in order to first confront Russian aggression and then eventually move toward a stable relationship with Moscow.
“The only way we can have the confidence to engage with Russia,” he said, “is to have the confidence and the strength which is provided by strong collective defense, the NATO alliance.”
Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski told the Brussels Forum that there has been a worrisome lag between NATO’s promises of more defensive equipment for Poland and what has actually arrived, a blow to the alliance’s credibility. “It’s very important and necessary for everyone to have the conviction, including the potential aggressor to have this conviction, that NATO is truly determined to execute contingency plans,” he said.
The White House missed a perfect opportunity to reinforce that message this week in snubbing Stoltenberg. It fits into a narrative pushed by Obama critics that he would rather meet with problematic leaders such as Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who will get an Oval Office meeting next month, than firm allies. The message Russian President Vladimir Putin will take away is that the White House-NATO relationship is rocky, and he will be right.
*** Putin is taking full advantage of this neglect and the means by which it plays out does not have a positive result. When it comes to Ukraine, we are bound by a long standing agreement to support and protect the country, to date that has not happened. Ukraine is working to increase the size of its forces against continued Russian aggression. Obama has refused to tend to the relationship with Poland. As a gesture, we have deployed 4 A-10’s to Poland. Even the country of Georgia is at risk of Russian juggernaut.
MOSCOW — President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday that a recent Russian military exercise has marked the beginning of a series of such drills this year, a show of force that comes amid a bitter strain with the West over Ukraine.
Reflecting the tensions, U.S. and other NATO forces staged maneuvers in the Baltics, and a convoy of U.S. troops has driven through eastern Europe in a bid to reassure the allies.
Last week’s Russian maneuvers that spread from the Arctic to the Black Sea involved 80,000 troops, about 100 navy ships and more than 220 aircraft.
Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu reported to Putin Tuesday that the maneuvers were aimed at checking the readiness of the newly formed group of forces in the Arctic, as well as the military’s capability to quickly field troops to several theaters of operations.
“I proceed from the assumption that this was just the start of efforts to train the armed forces,” Putin said.
As part of the drills, the state-of-the art Iskander missiles were deployed to Russia’s westernmost exclave of Kaliningrad bordering NATO members Poland and Lithuania, and long-range, nuclear-capable Tu-22M3 bombers were sent to Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula Russia annexed from Ukraine a year ago.
The move was intended to demonstrate Russia’s readiness to raise the ante amid a bitter strain in relations with the West, but for now the Kremlin apparently has stopped short of making the deployment permanent.
Shoigu reported to Putin that all troops involved in the maneuvers have returned to their home bases.
Asked specifically if the Iskander missiles also had returned to their location, Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov referred to Shoigu’s statement in comments carried by Russian news agencies.
Even though the latest maneuvers ended last week, the Russian military continued their training.
NATO said it scrambled Danish and Italian jets based in Lithuania early Tuesday to escort four Russian military jets flying with their transponders switched off in international airspace over the Baltic Sea. The alliance said the Russian planes were heading to Kaliningrad.