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NATO Dispatch: Cautionary Thoughts on the Summit

President Obama at press conference in Portugal (Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

LISBON, Portugal | White House aides are touting this NATO summit trip as a huge win for President Obama. And so is he. “We’ve just concluded an incredibly productive summit,” a smiling President Obama told a news conference at the summit headquarters. “We came to Lisbon with a clear task … [to] revitalize the alliance to meet the challenges [of the 21st century.] … That’s what we’ve done here.” Unlike the uneven result of the President’s recent 10-day Asia sojourn, said an aide, “We got all we wanted this time.” But the politics of it are more complicated than that.

On the plus side:

– A boost for the president’s push to get the lame duck Senate to [ratify the START nuclear weapons treaty](http://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2010/11/20/weekly-address-new-start-treaty-fundamental-security) with the Russians before the end of the year.

Many alliance heavyweights — from German Chancellor Angela Merkel to a bevy of foreign ministers from Denmark, Hungary, Latvia and elsewhere (helpfully steered to a briefing room where the White House press corps had been assembled) — made a point of telling reporters that START was essential to Europe’s security. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen was even more explicit: “Delay in ratification will be damaging to the overall security environment in Europe.”

Asked what message he hoped the NATO summit would send to Sen. Jon Kyl and other balking Republicans, President Obama cited the testimonials, and said, “There’s no reason not to get it done but the fact that Washington has become a very partisan place.”

  • NATO’s commitment to assist the U.S.-led mission in Afghanistan through 2014, while beginning to hand off lead responsibility to Afghan forces early next year. It’s a pledge the White House hopes will mean U.S. troops won’t be left holding the bag alone.

  • A NATO-wide commitment — with endorsement from Russia as well — to build a Europe-wide missile defense system against ballistic missile threats from Iran, a consensus that eluded President George W. Bush.

  • And, in a surprise, NATO’s decision to choose the U.S. for its next summit in 2012 — a chance for President Obama to play world leader at home in an election year.

But there are two big caveats, too:

  • The president’s liberal base can’t be happy with the explicitly extended commitment to keep combat troops in Afghanistan for at least four more years. “That’s longer than all of World War I,” one administration official noted ruefully. For now the Republicans, more muscular on the war, aren’t likely to raise a ruckus. But if American casualties keep mounting, this longer term commitment could boomerang politically with the public at large.

  • None of the president’s achievements these two days have anything to do with what the American public desperately wants — jobs.

All food for thought as Team Obama breaks out the champagne on its way home.

Follow Margaret Warner on Twitter.

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