A pragmatic Dutchman gets a key NATO post

Posted in NATO | 25-Sep-03 | Author: Gregory Crouch | Source: The New York Times

THE HAGUE Foreign Minister Jaap de Hoop Scheffer of the Netherlands, a career diplomat and politician who managed to support the Bush administration’s war in Iraq while not alienating European neighbors who opposed it, on Monday was named secretary-general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

De Hoop Scheffer, 55, replaces George Robertson of Britain.

Fluent in French, German and English, de Hoop Scheffer worked the telephones among U.S. and European ministers earlier this year to help devise a Dutch strategy in Iraq that satisfied the Bush administration without angering European leaders who opposed the war, including the French president, Jacques Chirac, and the German chancellor, Gerhard Schröder.

Under de Hoop Scheffer’s direction, the Netherlands endorsed the war in Iraq politically, but remained neutral militarily, declining to send Dutch soldiers to fight alongside U.S. and British troops.

Following President George W. Bush’s announcement of an end to major combat operations May 1, the Netherlands enabled the return home of 1,500 U.S. Marines as it sent an equal number of its own soldiers to Iraq. They went to a southern province where it is generally safe and they can maintain a low-profile.

‘‘The way the Dutch comported themselves during and after the Iraq war was very effective,’’ said a senior NATO official, adding that de Hoop Scheffer had distinguished himself at a meeting of NATO foreign ministers earlier this year. ‘‘He was very forceful about healing trans-Atlantic rifts.’’

Once considered something of a political has-been in the Netherlands, de Hoop Scheffer proved himself a master of compromise as foreign minister, raising his profile in Washington while creating some controversy — even bitterness — at home.

Wim Kok, a former Dutch prime minister and a member of the Labor party, recently said that the country had become a lapdog of the Bush administration, echoing similar sentiments made by some British lawmakers against their leader, Tony Blair. Kok later apologized for the remark.

Another former Dutch prime minister, Andreas van Agt, was once de Hoop Scheffer’s boss and the two men, both Christian Democrats, have remained friends while clashing over the country’s foreign policy.

‘‘It’s quite clear to every observer around that one of his qualifications for the job is having been so nice to the U.S. government,’’ said van Agt in an interview. De Hoop Scheffer has shown himself ‘‘to be very, very loyal to His Majesty in the White House.’’

U.S. officials deflected such criticism by pointing out that de Hoop Scheffer’s appointment was agreed upon by all 19 current members of NATO, including France and Germany.

‘‘We think de Hoop Scheffer is the ideal person for the job. He has strong ties across the Atlantic to the U.S. and Canada but is also very well respected in Europe,’’ said Nicholas Burns, the U.S. ambassador to NATO. ‘‘He is a pragmatic person and he is a doer and we know he’ll be successful.’’

The British foreign secretary, Jack Straw, was equally pleased. ‘‘I warmly welcome the decision,’’ he said in a statement.

‘‘We have worked closely together in his present capacity, and I have the highest respect for his professionalism and leadership skills,’’ Straw said.

De Hoop Scheffer, scheduled to take office Jan. 1, will be the third Dutchman to serve as NATO secretary-general in the organization’s 54-year history.

‘‘The Netherlands has become a builder of bridges, both within Europe and across the Atlantic,’’ the Dutch prime minister, Jan Peter Balkenende, said in a statement. ‘‘This vote of confidence for Mr. de Hoop Scheffer by the international community highlights that role yet again.’’

De Hoop Scheffer takes control of NATO at a time when the alliance itself is struggling to redefine its role in a post-Cold War world, which has seen individual members increasingly at odds.

Until recently, de Hoop Scheffer was largely shunted to the sidelines. Named foreign minister two years ago, he was previously known in the Netherlands as the failed leader of the Christian Democrats. He stepped aside as the party’s chairman following sagging poll results to make way for Balkenende, who subsequently became prime minister.

On television here, de Hoop Scheffer often comes across as a stern, unsmiling figure whose discomfort in front of the camera overshadows any of his diplomatic or political achievements. Dutch voters were not impressed.

Reluctant to laugh or joke on camera, de Hoop Scheffer easily relaxes among friends and colleagues.

‘‘He is a very nice, kind, well-meaning man,’’ said van Agt. ‘‘Just a good guy.’’

His supporters point out that even his private life has prepared him for his new job.

De Hoop Scheffer’s father’s nephew was once the Netherlands’ ambassador to NATO, while his wife is a French teacher.

De Hoop Scheffer has shown himself to be a long-distance runner, exhibiting the kind of patience and endurance he may well need as new head of NATO.