The President's Mr. Fix-It Hits the Road

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, March 8, 2009

Heading off a diplomatic train wreck at NATO headquarters is on the list of urgent tasks that take Vice President Biden to Europe this week for the second time in a month. High-level jet lag is one consequence of having an administration that is all generals and no sergeants.

His Tuesday visit to Brussels illuminates Biden's Mr. Fix-It role in the Obama administration. Joe the Glad-Handing Mechanic has replaced Dick the Secretive Influencer. Sunny, visible and verbose have chased gloomy, occult and clipped from the office that is by turn momentous or frivolous, depending on what the president and vice president make of it -- and of each other.

President Obama's confidence in Biden's versatility and talents is outranked only by that of, well, Biden's in himself. This week the veep is helping shape the new multilateral engagement that Obama has promised. The Bush team figured out who America's enemies were and left it to other nations to decide if they were our friends. Obama is determined to do it the other way around.

But that may sound simpler than it is in a global economic crisis that pushes governments to pursue self-interest more ardently. Traditional alignments and the roles of all established international organizations are up for grabs. Foreign friendship and enmity increasingly come in shades of gray that change as rapidly as sun-sensitive transition lenses. (See Pakistan. Or the administration's noble ambitions to co-opt "recoverable" Taliban warriors away from jihad.)

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown came here last week to offer the Group of 20 as the new improved international coordinating body, shortly after Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini arrived and proposed new ways to shore up the older Group of Eight's primacy in that regard.

Frattini got limited encouragement from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to explore a June ministerial G-8 meeting with Afghanistan's neighbors -- including Iran. Frattini's idea would have provided good cover for the United States and Iran to engage constructively. But on Thursday, Clinton -- in Brussels for a NATO meeting -- proposed a high-level conference on, yes, Afghanistan to be sponsored by the United Nations. Biden will follow her to Brussels and reassure NATO states that their centrality to U.S. policy did not evaporate in the four days that separate the two visits.

This is the problem with not having sergeants: They figure out how to do what the generals want done and then keep the generals from getting their wires crossed. Ambassadors and assistant secretaries normally do that in diplomacy. But the long, arduous confirmation process (greatly complicated by Team Obama's nomination flubs) denies the administration its own sergeants in these months of "dead center," as Dwight D. Eisenhower called lengthy White House transfers of powers. So saddle up, Joe.

Aides say that Biden will go to NATO primarily to carry out Obama's pledge to consult with allies before the administration's strategic review on Afghanistan is completed and sent to the president in mid-March.

But Biden may also be able to prevent two lingering problems from blowing up into showstoppers at Obama's debut on the NATO stage, the April 3-4 summit in Strasbourg.

The first involves achieving agreement on a new secretary general to take charge of the organization this summer. Washington would reward Canada for its valiant combat performance in Afghanistan by putting Defense Minister Peter MacKay in the job. But European countries feel that this is not the time to break a tradition of giving the post to a European (who would presumably have a surer feel for Europe's complex politics). The all-too-predictable catch: There is no European consensus candidate.

Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen would be a standout choice, particularly as Denmark's soldiers have also performed heroically in the Afghan war. But Rasmussen is considering running for a fourth term at home and would have to be drafted by the alliance. Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Store is another Scandinavian possibility, and Poland and Bulgaria also have candidates running.

Biden will also be available to help nail down details of France's plan to rejoin, at the summit, NATO's military command after a 43-year absence. The United States will agree to let French generals take over two commands currently held by Americans to smooth the way for this symbolically important step, according to European sources.

At coffee breaks, the vice president will no doubt scout the horizon for signs that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin will put aside his reticence to reestablish a U.S.-Russian commission headed by the two of them. Then Biden can hurry home and get back to fixing the middle class, overseeing stimulus accountability and, perhaps most urgent, getting some sleep.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company