New NATO Commander Obama Choice Surprises Europeans

US Admiral James Stavridis is expected to take command of NATO forces soon. Obama's decision to appoint him has astounded many in Europe, but the nominee brings important experience to the Afghanistan mission.

By in Washington

For Europeans at least, President Barack Obama's choice for the new NATO commander comes as a surprise.

On Wednesday afternoon, e-mails circulating between Brussels and Berlin suggesting that, within the course of the day, Washington would name General James N. Mattis as the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. The commander is in charge of all US troops in Europe as well as NATO deployments, including the ISAF security force in Afghanistan.

Admiral James Stavridis is expected to be approved by Congress as the next commander of NATO troops.
US Navy

Admiral James Stavridis is expected to be approved by Congress as the next commander of NATO troops.

Traditionally, the United States appoints the supreme commander and the Europeans pick the NATO secretary general. The decision to appoint Mattis appeared to be a logical one. He has long carried the title "Supreme Allied Commander Transformation."

In the end, though, Mattis didn't get the appointment. Instead, Defense Minister Robert Gates announced that Admiral James Stavridis would be nominated for the highly prestigious position. The US Senate and the NATO Council must approve his nomination, but it appears likely he will get through. Gates said Stavridis was "probably one of the best senior military officers" in the US.

In Brussels, though, many felt bluffed. "America treats this like it's purely an American matter -- and they didn't even give any hints about the appointment," one NATO employee said. "The conspiratorial manner of the personnel search was almost reminiscent of the way the pope is selected," Stefani Weiss, a NATO expert at the Bertelsmann Stiftung foundation in Brussels, told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

It appears Obama was swayed towards Stavridis because the admiral, during his work as the head of the US Military Command in Latin America, promoted cooperation between the military and civilian institutions. Washington now wants to adopt this approach as its new maxim in Afghanistan.

Obama recently made the decision to send 17,000 additional US soldiers to Afghanistan, but both he and his defense secretary are united in their opinion that there "is no purely military solution." The White House recently concluded several studies researching possible new approaches in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and those findings are expected to be discussed at the NATO summit in early April.

Stavridis is the first representative of the Navy to be nominated to command the NATO forces. Because the mission in landlocked Afghanistan is largely focused on ground troops, the move surprised some in Washington. Nevertheless, military observers note that Stavridis is already working with all arms of the US armed forces in his current role.

Stavridis comes from Florida and he is a highly decorated graduate of the US Naval Academy. He has served in Haiti, Bosnia, the Persian Gulf and in the Iraq war. He is also the author of a number of books. His most recent mission was a diplomatically controversial one: On Tuesday of this week, he testified before the Senate Defense Committee about Iran's growing influence in Latin America. But he has also shown his flexibility in other ways -- he regularly plays squash with former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

If confirmed by the Senate, Stavridis will replace NATO Supreme Commander John Craddock, who was largely perceived in Europe as Bush's henchman and made plenty of enemies at NATO headquarters in Brussels. A few weeks ago, Craddock made headlines when SPIEGEL ONLINE reported about a classified letter he had sent to commanders of the NATO security forces in Afghanistan. In the letter, a so-called "guidance" -- which on a strategic level is equivalent to an order -- Craddock called for an immediate offensive "to attack directly drug producers and facilities throughout Afghanistan."

The content of the order was explosive. "It is no longer necessary to produce intelligence or other evidence that each particular drug trafficker or narcotics facility in Afghanistan meets the criteria of being a military objective," Craddock wrote. The order sparked outrage throughout the NATO alliance including all political camps and Craddock ultimately withdrew it.

Four-star General Craddock has already been preparing for his replacement in recent weeks. In January, he took part in a special US Army course for officers getting ready for retirement.

With additional reporting by Alexander Szandar and wire reports.


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