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Chicago protests greet NATO summit as allies grapple with differences

9:10 am on Sat, 05.19.12

Updated at 2:53 pm on Sat, 05.19.12

10:27 pm on Sun, 05.20.12

CHICAGO — Barricades surround the McCormick Place convention center. Armies of police, equipped with $1 million worth of new riot gear, are patrolling the streets. The president’s and mayor’s houses have been fortified. And “sound cannons” that emit ear-splitting noise are ready to be fired.

Protestors march in the streets as part of a demonstration ahead of the NATO Summit in Chicago, May 18, 2012.
REUTERS/Darren Hauck
Protestors march in the streets as part of a demonstration ahead of the NATO Summit in Chicago, May 18, 2012.

If it sounds as if Chicago is preparing for an enemy onslaught, think again. The official invaders are U.S. allies, leaders of the NATO nations in town for a summit. And the unofficial onslaught will come from tens of thousands of protesters, who promise to be peaceful but loud. Police say they hope for the best, but are prepared for the worst.

Update:  At least 45 people were arrested and four police officers injured during Sunday's demonstrations, which drew thousands of protesters to various sites in downtown Chicago for what was described as one of the largest demonstrations there in years.

Most of the arrests and injuries occurred when a relatively small group of protesters clashed with police for nearly two hours outside McCormick Place, where Obama and other NATO leaders were meeting. Some of the demonstrators threw bottles or sticks, local news media reported, leading some police officers to fend them off by swinging their batons. The protesters,
some of whom were from the Occupy movement, included peace activists,
a group of disaffected war veterans, and other demonstrators whose
focus was economic inequality. End update

Read more

Chicago braced for more demonstrations Monday / Chicago Tribune

Nato leaders begin summit on Monday / Washington Post

Earlier, busloads and cars full of demonstrators from the Occupy movement and other groups arrived in the city and girded for a weekend of protests. While their focus is a bit vague, spokespeople for Occupy Chicago – which is helping to organize the demonstrations – said they hoped to capture global attention with Sunday’s march for “peace and economic equality.”

While the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is a legitimate target for protests involving war and peace, the alliance of 28 countries has little to do with economic equality.

In effect, NATO’s summit in Chicago on Sunday and Monday has become a surrogate for a a bigger target: the Group of Eight (G8) summit, which began Friday. The G8 session was moved from Chicago to the more isolated Camp David, Maryland, mainly because officials feared disruptive protests.

While the pre-summit protests on Friday were relatively peaceful, police feared the possibility of scattered violence among otherwise law-abiding demonstrators. On Saturday, three men who had been arrested earlier in the week during a raid on an apartment in Chicago were being held on conspiracy charges related to allegations that they had planned to make Molotov cocktails that could have been thrown during the NATO summit.

The Chicago media have gotten into the swing of the summit and demonstrations, which hit town the same weekend as the Cubs-White Sox interleague baseball series. In a tongue-in-cheek comparison of the two big events, “Interleague vs. Intercontinental,” the Chicago Tribune listed two contrasting NATO vs. baseball “trouble spots” – Afghanistan vs. unreliable Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood (who announced his retirement from baseball Friday) — as well as the differences in protest targets: “military aggression and economic equality” vs. “lousy bullpens and nearsighted umps.”

A Trib survey, released Thursday, found that six out of 10 Chicago voters approved of the city hosting the NATO summit — which Mayor Rahm Emanuel sees as a way to boost Chicago’s international profile — but only about half thought that the protests would remain peaceful. However, 61 percent said they had a right to protest.

While President Barack Obama wants to show off his hometown of Chicago to NATO leaders, the tight security may mean that they see very little of it. Much of downtown was being closed to parking; motorcades will speed NATO leaders to the meeting places, and a “no-fly zone” will be enforced in much of the Windy City’s airspace.

U.S. President Barack Obama (R) meets with French President Francois Hollande in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington May 18, 2012.
REUTERS/Eric Feferberg/Pool
U.S. President Barack Obama meets with French President Francois Hollande in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington May 18, 2012.

After his meeting at the White House on Friday with the new French president, Francois Hollande, Obama said the socialist leader had once studied fast food and joked that he wanted to learn “his views on cheeseburgers in Chicago.” Instead, Hollande will sample Great Lakes whitefish and Colorado lamb at a dinner hosted Sunday by Mayor Emanuel at the Field Museum.

When pool reporters shot questions at Hollande after the White House meeting, the French president smiled, thanked Obama for his knowledge of Hollande’s fast-food studies, and joked to the French journalists: “No declaration on French fries.”

The spouses of NATO leaders were getting more of a taste of Chicago from a native of the city, first lady Michelle Obama. She planned to take them to the Gary Comer Youth Center, where they will watch performances by the South Shore Dance Drill Team and the Soul Children of Chicago singing group. Afterward, they are invited to a private dinner at the Art Institute of Chicago, which will be closed to the public all weekend.

NATO focuses on Afghanistan

The turmoil from protesters outside the McCormick Center may be echoed, in a quieter but ultimately more serious way, by disagreements at the NATO summit itself.

NATO has been the foundation of transatlantic security for more than 60 years but was forced to reevaluate its original mission when the Cold War ended two decades ago.

Today, critics of NATO question whether it can remain relevant at a time of economic austerity — when member nations are slashing defense budgets — and terrorist groups and rogue nations pose the main security threats.

“NATO has a bad name among defense analysts,” says Michael Desch, a security expert who chairs the political science department at Notre Dame University. Much of that criticism has focused on “burden-sharing” questions, given that this country has spent far more on defense than its NATO allies in Europe.

NATO’s mission is likely to be discussed at the summit, although no immediate solution is likely. To be sure, NATO members declared victory last fall when the alliance’s coordinated air campaign against the Libyan regime, dubbed Operation Unified Protector, led to the defeat of the late dictator Moammar Gadhafi.

The Libya mission “reaffirmed that American and European interests remain convergent and that military action by NATO in response to a crisis, backed up by a United Nations mandate and regional support, is not only possible but effective,” argued Stéphane Abrial, a French Air Force general who is NATO’s strategic commander for transforming the alliance, in a New York Times op-ed Friday.

But the long-running war in Afghanistan, which has involved several NATO members for a decade, is causing dissent. In fact, Hollande told Obama at their initial meeting Friday at the White House that he would follow through on his election campaign promise to withdraw all French forces from Afghanistan by year’s end.

Even so, Hollande told reporters Friday that France “will continue to support Afghanistan in a different way . . . in good understanding with our allies.”

Indeed, one of the prime topics at the NATO summit is how to help the United States manage the complex endgame of withdrawing from Afghanistan. The other two main topics will be finding ways to strengthen NATO’s global partnership and to implement the alliance’s new “smart defense” doctrine for more efficient pooling of military resources.

Also, the burden-sharing debate is likely to continue. Even though the Libya operation was generally successful, “it highlighted a number of structural issues,” Abrial said, including “the disproportionate reliance on the United States to provide the enablers — for example, air-to-air refueling and persistent surveillance — critical for a swift conclusion of the operation.”

Another challenge is how NATO defines its relationship with Russia, whose newly reinstalled president, Vladimir Putin, declined to attend the NATO and G8 summits this weekend. In the past, NATO has held firm on its plans for a European missile-defense system and its offer to expand into more of the former Soviet states.

One key to NATO’s future role may be Turkey, whose president, Abdullah Gul, arrived in Chicago on Friday to attend the summit. A member of NATO since 1952, Turkey has emerged as a crucial ally in the relationship between Western nations and Muslim-majority nations in the Middle East. And that role may be expanded as NATO reanalyzes its mission.

Credited Photos © 2012 Thomson Reuters. Click for restrictions.

“Turkey is the bridge between Europe and the Middle East, and the most important country in the future of the Middle East is Turkey,” Desch said. “As the great power in the region, it could be a counterweight to Iran.” And, so far, Turkey has shown that Islam can thrive in conjunction with democracy and the free market.

Given the potential importance of Turkey in a redefined NATO, the alliance’s help to the U.S. in Afghanistan, and the generally successful mission in Libya, Desch believes NATO can retain its importance if it successfully redefines its mission.

“Two cheers for NATO,” he said. “It could be more important in the years to come.”

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