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NATO selects Dutch minister as new leader
( 2003-09-23 15:03) (Agencies)

NATO selected Dutch Foreign Minister Jaap de Hoop Scheffer as the alliance's new secretary general Monday, picking a diplomat-turned-politician to help ease tensions between the United States and key European allies over the Iraq war.

Dutch Foreign Minister Jaap de Hoop Scheffer speaks at United Nations headquarters Sept. 22, 2003, after being named secretary general of NATO.  [AP]
After a nine-month search, ambassadors from the 19 NATO nations agreed on De Hoop Scheffer to replace Britain's Lord Robertson, whose four-year term ends on Jan. 1.

De Hoop Scheffer, 55, showed his diplomatic skills earlier this year during the debate over Iraq as his government supported the U.S.-led war but avoided antagonizing France, Germany and other European opponents of the effort to oust Saddam Hussein.

"He has an excellent perception of the different sensibilities on both sides of the Atlantic, that's why he is particularly well placed to promote the European and trans-Atlantic dimensions of NATO," said Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel.

The Dutchman's main rival for the position was Canadian Finance Minister John Manley, who failed to muster support from European nations reluctant to relinquish their traditional hold on the secretary-general's post.

President Bush welcomed De Hoop Scheffer's appointment and commended Robertson on spearheading "an ambitious agenda of transformation to make NATO forces lighter, faster, and better able to meet the challenges of the 21st century."

De Hoop Scheffer met with Bush this month during a visit to Washington, an event Dutch media billed as an American examination of the Dutchman.

"Mr. De Hoop Scheffer is a leader deeply committed to freedom and to strong and effective trans-Atlantic cooperation," Bush said in a statement Monday. "I look forward to working with him."

De Hoop Scheffer supports his country's traditional role as a supporter of both European unity and a strong Atlantic alliance a position that also helped his candidacy.

"He is convinced of the importance of strong relations between the United States and Europe," said Fred van Staden, head of the Clingendael Institute for Strategic Studies in The Hague.

"He is the perfect figure to iron out creases in the Atlantic alliance."

De Hoop Scheffer as a diplomat to the Dutch mission to NATO from 1978-1980 and served as personal secretary to four Dutch foreign ministers after his election to parliament in 1986.

He became leader of the center-right Christian Democratic party, but a perceived dull image failed to ignite public support and he stepped down before 2002 elections.

His understated manner will mark a contrast with Robertson, a Scottish former minister in the Labor government of British Prime Minister Tony Blair who calls his approach to dealing with allied governments "diplomatic thuggery."

"In terms of where NATO goes in the future, there's not going to be any significant chance," said Stephen Blackwell, European security expert at London's Royal United Services Institute.

In particular, De Hoop Scheffer is a strong supporter of NATO's drive to reinvent itself for the global war against terrorism, ditching its Cold War focus on territorial defense in Europe.

At a June meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Madrid, he surprised colleagues by suggesting the alliance could take on Middle East peacekeeping if Israel and the Palestinians reach a truce.

"He's the ideal person to continue NATO's transformation ... into an alliance militarily capable and deployable and politically prepared to confront the new threats of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction," said Nicholas Burns, the U.S. ambassador to NATO.

Since NATO's founding in 1949, the alliance's top civilian post has been held by a European, while a U.S. general serves as the supreme allied commander.

Several European figures were mentioned as possible replacements for Robertson, including Italian Defense Minister Antonio Martino and Norway's Defense Minister Kristin Krohn Devold, who would have been the first woman to hold the post.

 
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