NATO Chief Sidesteps Questions on Biden's Fitness to Lead Alliance Against Putin

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin welcomes NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, right, welcomes NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg to the Pentagon on Monday, July 8, 2024 in Washington. (AP Photo/Kevin Wolf)

The head of NATO balked twice last week when asked to vouch for the mental and physical fitness of U.S. President Joe Biden to lead the alliance in the long-term fight to save Ukraine and contain an expansionist Russia.

When first asked at a news conference Friday for his impression on the state of Biden's overall health, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg would say only that he had worked with Biden on a variety of issues and "I appreciate his strong commitment to NATO."

The second question put to Stoltenberg on the 81-year-old Biden's ability to meet the demands of the presidency and global leadership was more direct: "Do you truly believe that President Biden is mentally and physically fit enough to lead the biggest nuclear armed [NATO] ally for now and for the next four-and-one-half years?"

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In his reply, Stoltenberg said, "One of the reasons why NATO is successful is that we have always stayed out of domestic political issues.

"If I start to say anything that makes it possible to connect me to ongoing political debates in any allied country, I will actually weaken the alliance," he added.

    The news conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels was intended to be a preview of the NATO summit in Washington marking the 75th anniversary of the alliance. The summit was expected to focus on shoring up support for Ukraine, but will now have as a backdrop the implications of Biden's disastrous performance in the June 27 debate with former President Donald Trump and the increasing possibility of a Trump second term.

    European leaders have mostly avoided giving an assessment of Biden's ability to continue in office, but Donald Tusk, Poland's centrist prime minister, told reporters June 28 that the message of the debate was that the Democrats and Biden's team "definitely have a problem. The reactions have been unambiguous. I was afraid of that."

    At the Brussels news conference and in a lengthy statement, Stoltenberg made the point that 22 of the 32 NATO member countries, including France and Germany, have now reached the stated goal of the alliance to spend at least 2% of their gross domestic product on defense.

    As president, Trump frequently railed against NATO members who failed to meet the 2% goal, and at a rally in Conway, South Carolina, in February, he claimed to have told an unidentified member state during his term in office that he would encourage Russia to invade states that don't pay up.

    "You didn't pay? You're delinquent? No, I would not protect you," Trump said. "In fact, I would encourage them to do whatever the hell they want. You gotta pay. You gotta pay your bills."

    He made the remarks days after Stoltenberg said allies "must go further" than spending 2% on defense -- possibly 2.5% or 3%.

    NATO's budget and funding for Ukraine will be at the top of the agenda for the summit of world leaders marking the 75th anniversary year of the founding of the alliance when then-Secretary of State Dean Acheson, with President Harry Truman looking on, signed the North Atlantic Treaty on April 4, 1949. The Senate later ratified the treaty by a vote of 83-13.

    But the task for Biden at the summit will be to show his ability to go gaffe-free through three days of meetings and dinners at the Washington Convention Center beginning Tuesday and capped by a news conference Thursday.

    The mission for NATO in 1949 was to stop the Soviet Union from expanding in Eastern Europe and, in some ways, the mission is similar today -- stop Russian President Vladimir Putin from taking over Ukraine and threatening NATO allies.

    "Putin shows no intention of ending this war any time soon, and he is increasingly aligned with other authoritarian powers, including China, that wish to see the United States fail, Europe fracture, and NATO falter," Stoltenberg said in a statement ahead of the NATO summit.

    Support for Ukraine will be "the most urgent task" of the summit, said Stoltenberg, who outlined proposals for NATO members to broaden their defense industrial bases.

    He also said that NATO will take over the coordination of most international security assistance for Ukraine by setting up a new command in Germany with about 700 personnel to be led by a three-star general who has yet to be named.

    The summit comes amid a transformation of NATO's military ordered up by Army Gen. Christopher Cavoli, who doubles as NATO commander with the title of Supreme Allied Commander Europe, or SACEUR, and also as head of U.S. European Command.

    At a May 7 Atlantic Council event, Cavoli said that Russia's aggression had accelerated plans for the "wholescale modernization" of NATO's forces along the lines of what U.S. forces has undergone since the end of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    The emphasis had been on counterinsurgency warfare, and now the challenge is to shape forces for more conventional combat against what the military calls "near-peer" competitors, Cavoli said.

    "It's forced us to re-examine how the alliance is structured," he said. The focus had been on crisis management and now the priority is "collective defense," Cavoli added. "It could not be more different than what we were prepared to do" in the past.

    Cavoli said he expected the NATO summit to get member state agreement to "provide what we need to provide" over the long haul for Ukraine to survive as an independent state, although the threat from Russia will remain.

    "We will have a big Russia problem for years to come," Cavoli said.

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