Suggestions that the United States may be planning an offensive against Iraq as the next stage in the war against terrorism are sparking intense debate in Germany. Critical comments by Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer prompted the discussions, which have intensified since it became known they have the backing of the cabinet.
Munich, 19 February 2002 (RFE/RL) -- In an interview this week with the weekly German news magazine "Der Spiegel," German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer criticizes U.S. President George W. Bush for describing Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as "an axis of evil."
Fischer focuses particularly on Iraq and the speculation -- both in the U.S. and in Europe -- that Washington is considering an offensive against Baghdad. Fischer says: "Up to now, no one has presented me with evidence that the terror posed by Osama bin Laden has anything to do with the regime of Saddam Hussein."
Fischer also reiterated previous comments in which he said the international coalition formed after 11 September to fight global terrorism does not authorize the U.S. to act unilaterally against Iraq or any of the other countries named by Bush. He says the international coalition "is not a blank check to invade some country -- especially not single-handedly."
Initially, it was believed that Fischer, who is well known for his pacifist views, was speaking only for himself. But in Berlin today, a government spokesman, Uwe-Karsten Heye, said Fischer's comments had been coordinated with other members of the government. The spokesman also said the German government as a whole takes the position that there is no evidence linking Iraq with bin Laden's Al-Qaeda terrorist group.
The government statements have aroused spirited debate in Germany in light of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's oft-repeated avowal of "unqualified support" for the war against terrorism. Opposition parties, talk-show hosts, and political commentators are asking whether the German chancellor has since amended his position.
Schroeder's own answer is a firm "no." He reminded reporters last night that on his recent trip to Washington he had received assurances from Bush that there is no plan on his desk involving an attack on Iraq. Schroeder said he has no reason to mistrust the U.S. president.
"We all agree that the allies have a right to be consulted if the situation changes, and there is no indication of that at present," Schroeder said.
Schroeder said his government supports putting pressure on Saddam -- particularly regarding the demand that UN weapons experts be allowed to return to Iraq to investigate whether Baghdad is developing weapons of mass destruction. Saddam ordered the international inspectors to leave in December 1998.
German commentators have emphasized that Fischer and the German government are not alone in raising questions about U.S. intentions. Fischer himself refers frequently to comments made by the European Union's foreign affairs commissioner, Christopher Patten, Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine, and others.
Patten said a few days ago that the U.S. should not treat its allies as an "optional extra" to be used or ignored at will. Aznar -- who is also the current chairman of the European Union -- said the U.S. should differentiate between "individual rogue states which might commit crimes and the war against international terrorism."
In Germany, Fischer's comments triggered an immediate protest from leaders of the main opposition party, the Christian Democrats (CDU). One of them, Roland Koch, accused Fischer of adopting "leftist positions" and said his views could be harmful to Germany. A similar view was taken by the party chairman, Angela Merkel, who noted that Fischer is a member of the left-wing pacifist Greens party, which is losing support in Germany. She accused him of trying to win support for the party in national elections in September.
Another leading member of the CDU, Friedrich Merz, said Fischer is wrong to focus on the absence of any hard evidence linking Iraq with bin Laden. Merz says the real issue is "whether Iraq could pose a major threat to the West with nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons."
But not all members of the Christian Democratic leadership take this approach. In a recent interview, the party's foreign affairs spokesman, Karl Lamers, said an attack on Iraq would be the "wrong course of action."
Another German opposition party, the Free Democrats, is also warning against any unilateral action by the United States. Its leader, Guido Westerwelle, has appeared on several talk shows saying that Europe must make clear to the United States that any action must have the support of the international coalition.
"There can be no independent initiative by any country, including none by the United States," Westerwelle said. "We have to say that to our friends. Above all, the Europeans must say it to our American friends."
German political commentator Suzanne Kopf said today that the debate in itself is no surprise. Even last year, Schroeder had made it clear that Germany's unqualified support for the U.S. was limited to actions against the terrorists responsible for the attacks in New York and Washington.
Schroeder told the nation at that time that Germany would not get involved in what he called "adventures." It was widely assumed, even then, that he was referring to a possible offensive against Iraq.
Kopf said the German government is in a dilemma. On the one hand, it foresees many difficulties in a military offensive against Iraq, including the absence of a reliable opposition movement and the danger of a hostile reaction from the Islamic world. On the other hand, it does not want to be seen as accepting Saddam's regime as a lesser of evils -- as a factor for stability, however brutal, in an unstable region.
Until now, the debate has been conducted mostly in the media and through statements by individual politicians, but it could move this week to a more official level. The Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) -- the successor party to the East German Communist Party -- wants the issue discussed in parliament, perhaps as early as this week.
The PDS opposes Germany's official unqualified support for the war against terrorism. Its spokesman said in Berlin today it was time for what he called an "open debate" on just how far Germany should go in supporting U.S. actions.