The view from the ground.

All Quiet on the Western Front

NATO's at war, but you wouldn't know it in Brussels.

NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen gives a press conference on the eve of a meeting of Foreign Affairs NATO Council on December 2, 2009 at the NATO headquarters in Brussels. The NATO chief said today that alliance members would send at least 5,000 troops to back the new US surge of 30,000 extra soldiers, but key nations made no immediate offer to help. AFP PHOTO / JOHN THYS (Photo credit should read JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images)

BRUSSELS — During the Kosovo conflict in the late 1990s, NATO’s Brussels headquarters had something of the feeling of a battlefield encampment. Member states dispatched top strategists to Belgium to confer with one another and with the international press. Journalists from around the world crammed themselves by the hundreds every day into a gloomy auditorium to digest and challenge the latest spin, not only at the daily briefings, but also afterward, well into the night. As the alliance’s public face, NATO spokesman Jamie Shea became so well known that his name was chanted by Kosovar Albanians when he visited a liberated Pristina.

The contrast with today could hardly be greater. NATO is at war again, this time in Libya, but you wouldn’t know it from roaming its sleepy halls. Briefings take place twice a week, not every day, and journalists do not have to clamor for a seat. NATO’s new spokeswoman, Oana Lungescu, appears before the same auditorium that Shea did, but now it’s more than half-empty: Only 30 journalists or so sat scattered about at a recent briefing, and nearly all disappeared as soon as it was over. Needless to say, it’s unlikely that Libyans will be chanting Lungescu’s name anytime soon (and not just because it’s harder to pronounce than Shea).

NATO officials still insist that Brussels remains the nerve center of the Libya campaign. They acknowledge, of course, that the alliance’s communication strategy has changed, but argue that the apparent downsizing is a strategic shift, not a tactical retreat: a choice in favor of new media like Facebook and Twitter, rather than traditional newspapers and television broadcasters. “A static, Brussels-based daily briefing is no longer needed,” Lungescu tells me.

But it’s also hard to deny that NATO is struggling to manage a conflict based on a fragile political consensus. Lungescu could probably acquire prestige for NATO by assuming more of the international spotlight. A former journalist who fled Romania before the fall of communism and now speaks German, Spanish, French, and English as well as her native tongue, she is an apt symbol of the West’s achievements during and after the Cold War. But she can only assume as much responsibility as NATO member states feel compelled to cede.

And while France and Britain have been glad to assume the military lead, they have been ambivalent about NATO’s role. France initially resisted any NATO involvement at all in the no-fly zone over Libya. Canadian, British, and Italian military officers have since taken the podium at NATO briefings, but the sniping from the sidelines has sometimes drowned them out.

Only this week, British and French ministers called on NATO allies to take on a bigger burden of a campaign that the United States does not want to run. This wasn’t constructive criticism offered quietly at Brussels headquarters, but public shaming conducted from London and Paris. It’s a far cry from the Kosovo conflict, when British Prime Minister Tony Blair sent his own personal spokesman, Alistair Campbell, to Brussels to help direct NATO strategy and advise Wesley Clark, then-NATO’s supreme allied commander in Europe. Campbell dutifully decamped to NATO headquarters, making its cavernous cafeteria his own high-stakes strategy center.

Most conspicuous in their absence in Brussels are the Americans. The United States, which has been anxious to distance itself from front-line operations in Libya, has also been happy to take a back seat in the publicity war; but in doing so, it has produced a leadership vacuum. Indeed, the United States’ dominance over the alliance is mostly unquestioned. The supreme allied commander in Europe is always an American; Washington’s ambassador to NATO is invariably the alliance’s most influential diplomat. Without American leadership, NATO has been forced to improvise.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has tried to fill the gap, but he has yet to gain much traction. The former Danish prime minister has lead several news conferences, but much of his focus has been on new media. He regularly updates his Facebook page, his personal blog, and his Twitter feed. Unlike Javier Solana, who held this post during the Kosovo war, Rasmussen has proved eager to take center stage in the Libya intervention. But if his goal has been to advance the cause of the multinational alliance, he has also confirmed his reputation as an ambitious politician keen on self-promotion.

“The world has changed,” said Lungescu in a telephone interview, “You don’t need to have a spokesperson addressing the Brussels media every day. You reach people in different ways, and we are reaching out to a global audience.” NATO TV footage can be downloaded by broadcasters and has been used widely, she says. Moreover, the alliance says its focus is on reaching out to the Arab world, not just the press corps in Brussels. A lot has changed since 1999: Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya are probably more important than CNN, for starters.

NATO, a Cold War creation, has for years been a tough sell as a news story for Western audiences. NATO has recognized the looming battle for Western hearts and minds, appointing an executive from Coca-Cola, Michael Stopford, as a deputy assistant secretary-general responsible for improving public awareness of the military alliance. The organization has even tried to alleviate the relative burden of the 15 euro cab fare that journalists have to pay to go from downtown Brussels to NATO headquarters on the outskirts of town: Weekly briefings are now regularly held in the EU district to make life easier for reporters.

But the press corps continues to dwindle: It’s especially difficult to justify a correspondent here now that every single NATO briefing can be seen online and there are multiple ways to communicate with reporters and civilians on the battlefield. The only media to still follow NATO regularly in Brussels have been news agencies and specialist defense reporters.  

Those remaining journalists spend much of their time questioning what kind of role NATO is suited to play in the 21st century. The air campaign under way in Libya gives fresh urgency to that skepticism. At a time when Washington may not have the energy or the money to invest in new operations, can the military alliance still make credible calls for shared sacrifice? And if the United States has little interest in a military campaign, can anyone else be made to care about it?

But long-term media trends aside, part of the problem in trumpeting NATO’s role in Libya isn’t PR at all, but the fact that the West’s rebel allies have stalled in their progress. There are only so many ways you can spin a stalemate.

Stephen Castle is the Brussels bureau chief for the International Herald Tribune.

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