Despite ample hype about the coming NATO summit in Chicago, the powwow is unlikely to produce specific policy pacts that will make clear the alliance's plans for Afghanistan and Syria.
President Obama is set to welcome NATO and other world leaders to his hometown Saturday for three days of talks on everything from the alliance's long-term role in Afghanistan to missile defense to further NATO expansion.
But lawmakers and former U.S. officials are cautioning against expectations that the summit will clear up big questions surrounding those and other issues.
All eyes will be on the official statement—known as a communiqué in diplomatic circles—that each member nation will endorse at the summit's conclusion. That document will define what alliance members agreed to during the meetings.
On Afghanistan, the communiqué is expected to speak in broad tones about the role of U.S. and Western forces over the next two years and beyond.
While President Obama is sticking to removing most U.S. and NATO combat forces by the end of 2014, details remain sketchy about just what they will be doing during that time, and how many troops must remain into 2015.
James Dobbins, a former White House and State Department official who now works with the RAND Corp., said on a Tuesday conference call with reporters "there has been some confusion" in statements from the Obama administration on Afghanistan-related issues.
Dobbins expects the summit will provide details of how Afghan forces will assume the lead in all combat missions in 2013, with American and NATO forces still in place "to back the Afghans up, essentially."
On Western troop levels beyond Obama's 2014 combat troop withdrawal date, "I don't expect numbers" to be agreed to during the Chicago summit, Dobbins said.
Another murky issue unlikely to become clearer this weekend is how Washington and its European allies will split support costs for Afghan forces over the next decade.
The European economic crisis has cast new doubt on Europe's ability—and willingness—to annually pony up billions of euros to sustain a large Afghan military and security force. U.S. officials say they will urge NATO members to agree to pay a large chunk of the 1 billion euro the administration wants the international community to fork over each year.
"There is a huge deficit there in terms of the budget for the Afghan forces," Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, told U.S. News & World Report last week. "I hope to see evidence at the summit that NATO members are committed to addressing that."
Dobbins suggested the senator will be disappointed, however, predicting the summit will produce only "some mention of this, and some kind of generalized commitment."
The communiqué is also expected to gloss over the fighting in Syria between regime loyalist military forces and rebel factions.
"It will be interested whether it says anything all ... about a possible NATO role in Syria," Dobbins said.
Finally, several senators last week publicly complained that the Obama administration and other NATO countries opted against further expansion of the alliance a major summit topic.
Georgia, Macedonia and states of the former Yugoslavia all have been mentioned as candidates. But invitations will not be forthcoming after the summit.
New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, who chairs a Foreign Relations Committee panel on European affairs, told reporters Wednesday the three-day meeting will at best produce only "a path forward" for possible future alliance members.
"I think it is important to make very clear a path forward ... and a door is still open because it provides very important incentives for those countries to do the internal reforms that are important as they move towards democracy," Shaheen said. "It is important for them to see there's an open door. They need to know there's a path forward."
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