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NATO Dispatch: 3 Tests for Success for Obama

NATO Summit
The press filing center at the NATO Summit in Lisbon, Portugal. (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

LISBON, Portugal | President Obama is in Lisbon, hoping to rack up — in a jam- packed 30 hours of meetings — a higher batting average than he posted in his 10-day sojourn to Asia. The occasion: a summit of leaders of the six-decade-old NATO alliance created to protect Europe against the Cold War-era Soviet Union, still determined to stick together but not quite sure why.

NATO set for itself the goal of coming up with a new “strategic concept” for the 21st century to recast the alliance’s mission so that it’s relevant to the modern age. I sense you yawning already. But keeping NATO engaged in its defense in Europe and beyond helps protect the U.S. and spread the costs of doing so. (You think the Afghan war is expensive? Just imagine the price tag if we were the only ones fighting.) And one thing as a journalist you have to love about the Obama White House — they tell you in advance what they hope to get, so you can grade them on whether or not they do.

So will the high-flown rhetoric of the “strategic concept” they’re going to announce Friday actually have a plan of action and commitment to match? Here are the three things to look for:

1. Will Europe Sign Up to Missile Defense?

The new “strategic concept” will call for a collective approach to 21st century threats like cybersecurity and counter-terrorism. But as the top diplomat of one NATO member told me this week, “That’s just a lot of words.” The test for success: will the NATO members agree on a concrete action plan against one particular 21st century threat on the horizon — building a regional European missile defense against a medium-range missile attack from Iran?

The White House wants to link its plan for a phased deployment of U.S. interceptors and radar at sea, in Romania and Poland, with European-owned missile defense systems of various sorts to create a Europe-wide umbrella. It’s a vision that would have warmed Ronald “Star Wars” Reagan’s heart. But there are sticking points, including Turkish participation — given the efforts of its Islamist-leaning government to improve relations with neighboring Iran. As of Thursday night, the deal wasn’t done.

2. Will the Russians Play on the Defense Shield, or Afghanistan?

Presidents Obama and Medvedev have worked hard to “reset” the U.S.-Russia relationship, ruptured by the Georgia war of 2008, and it’s paid off with Russian assistance on the Iran front and elsewhere. But NATO and Russia have remained officially at loggerheads. So it was a big deal when NATO invited Medvedev to come here for the first meeting of the NATO-Russia Council in two years, and he accepted.

Two fronts to watch here: The Obama administration has invited Russia to contribute to the European defense shield. The offer in itself is a stunner, since NATO was formed in 1949 to defend Western Europe against the Soviet Bear. Operational specifics won’t be settled this weekend, but the body language and rhetoric from the Russians will likely say a lot.

Secondly, NATO wants Moscow to help the U.S.-NATO-ISAF mission in Afghanistan by providing training for Afghan Air Force pilots, who were trained on Soviet-era choppers, delivering more new Russian helicopters to the Afghans, and letting NATO ship more supplies in and out of Afghanistan through its territory. The crucial meetings for all this come Saturday.

3. Is NATO in for the Long Haul in Afghanistan?

Astonishingly, given the antipathy of the European publics to the nine-year-old Afghan war, NATO appears ready to step up and commit to stay engaged there through 2014, including with combat troops; at the same time, it will declare its intent to begin handing over lead security responsibility to the Afghans district-by-district, province-by-province, by next spring.

This is a major roll-back, perception-wise at least, from the agenda the White House pushed last December, when it announced its “surge” but said the U.S. would begin withdrawing troops in 2011.

But since Gen. David Petraeus assumed command last June, the message has shifted away from what he believes is a premature date to withdraw any but token numbers. Why are the Europeans on board? This was the first out-of-area mission NATO adopted in the post-Cold War era. The alliance can’t afford to see this fail. So they’ll sign up on Saturday. The test here is longer term: at a time of global financial crisis and austerity, will the Europeans keep up their own relatively small (compared to the U.S.) contingents of troops and trainers?

The trump card for the president is that for the Europeans, the conflict is less about Afghanistan and more about keeping the U.S. engaged in the most successful alliance in modern history. The countries of Europe rely on NATO to keep their citizens feeling safe in a world with a lot of larger and medium-sized bears on the prowl.

And if he plays it right, President Obama can reap the rewards.

Follow Margaret Warner on Twitter and watch for her report on Friday’s broadcast.

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