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Rift Widens As Germany Alienates NATO Allies

  • Benjamin Weinthal

German soldiers from NATO's International Security Assistance Force on patrol in Konduz, Afghanistan

German soldiers from NATO's International Security Assistance Force on patrol in Konduz, Afghanistan

Germany's decision to abandon its Western allies by abstaining on the UN Security Council's March vote to approve a no-fly zone over Libya created a profound rift between Chancellor Angela Merkel and the Obama administration, as well as the United Kingdom and France.

By declining to endorse the no-fly zone, Germany ended up alongside Russia and China, two countries not known for high marks on human rights.

After the Merkel administration withdrew its NATO warships from the Mediterranean Sea to avoid any semblance of involvement in the military action in Libya, the Obama administration took note of German indifference toward Colonel Qaddafi's crimes against humanity.

"Some nations may be able to turn a blind eye to atrocities in other countries," U.S. President Barack Obama said. "The United States of America is different. And as president, I refused to wait for the images of slaughter and mass graves before taking action."

Foreign Policy Limping On Both Legs

Not only did German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle sit on the sidelines, he even undermined NATO's military operations.

As the Arab League green-lighted missions to enforce the no-fly zone, Westerwelle said: "We calculated the risk. If we see that three days after this intervention began, the Arab League already criticizes [it], I think we had good reasons."

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle
Westerwelle's muddied foreign policy prompted an exasperated and angry French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe to declare: "The common security and defense policy of Europe? It is dead."

In another telling sign of German foreign policy limping on both legs, the German Left Party -- the new manifestation of the now-defunct East German Socialist Unity Party -- praised Westerwelle's Libyan course in the Bundestag.

Merkel's and Westerwelle's break with Washington and EU heavyweights like France and the United Kingdom stems in part from a late March regional election in the federal state of Baden-Wurttemberg.

In a failed last-ditch effort to carry her Christian Democratic Union party to victory, Merkel played the pacifist card, drawn straight from former Social Democratic Chancellor Gerhard Schroder's playbook.

'Lumbering, Beer-Drinking Social Workers'

Schroder famously whipped up anti-American sentiments among German voters in the lead-up to the Iraq war to come from behind in the polls and catapult his Red-Green coalition to election victory.

Today, an overwhelming majority of Germans reject the presence of the country's Federal Defense Forces in Afghanistan.

Though Germany committed 300 soldiers to operate AWACS surveillance flights over Afghanistan in late March, it shows little interest in fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan on the ground.

To Germany's credit, successive governments have committed troops to Afghanistan, but their refusal to engage in combat has been a great source of frustration for their Western allies.

In 2006, Canadian and British NATO parliament deputies in Britain's House of Commons ridiculed German forces as a group of lumbering, beer-drinking social workers, who did none of the hard work of eliminating Taliban forces.

And at another NATO meeting, according to "Der Spiegel," a British defense official told his German counterpart, "We're sending two coffins home every week, while you Germans hand out crayons and wool blankets."

Cozy Ties With Iran

The next major litmus test for German foreign policy is Iran's drive toward nuclear weapons. And Germany's track record in adhering to the West's strategy to isolate Iran has been feeble at best. Westerwelle has placed the economic interests of his pro-business Free Democratic Party ahead of NATO and international security.

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad (left) meeting with Guido Westerwelle in Tehran earlier this year
His Foreign Ministry midwifed earlier this year a deal involving at least 1.5 billion euros ($2.1 billion) in Indian crude-oil payments to Iran's regime with the help of the Bundesbank and the Hamburg-based European-Iranian Trade bank (EIH), a financial institution subjected to sanctions last year by the U.S. Treasury Department.

Westerwelle snubbed a bipartisan letter from 11 U.S. senators (including one independent) urging him in February to close the EIH. According to the U.S. Treasury Department, the EIH is one of the principal European financial conduits for Iran's illicit nuclear and missile programs.

In April, the U.S. Treasury successfully pressured the Germans to stop future payments of Indian crude oil. Despite the efforts of U.S. and British diplomats, as well as counterterrorism experts, to convince the Merkel administration to pull the plug on the EIH operation, the terror bank is still conducting financial transactions.

German Foreign Minister Westerwelle steadfastly refuses to close the EIH because mid-size German firms active in Iran use it to transfer payments. The firms' owners form a large part of the membership of Westerwelle's pro-business Free Democratic Party.

All of this helps to explain why Germany is Iran's most important European Union trade partner, with an annual total trade volume reaching over 4 billion euros ($5.7 billion) in 2010.

One wonders how serious Germany is about sanctions enforcement when its leading political and financial institutions worked with a blacklisted bank (EIH) to circumvent U.S. sanctions against Tehran, and it still refuses to shut the bank down. Sadly, there has been no serious effort from Merkel to reduce her country's flourishing trade relationship with the Islamic republic.

Germany is wittingly drifting off into political oblivion. If it wishes to be taken seriously as a reliable, democratic partner, it faces a crucial choice among its allies. On one side are Russia, Iran, and China, and on the other are the United States, NATO, Israel, and the rest of the free world.

Benjamin Weinthal is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

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