Friday, February 09, 2007

A "little bit pregnant"

A major political row has broken out in Germany following the news that the Cabinet has agreed to send six reconnaissance Tornadoes to Afghanistan.

SPD parliamentary leader, and former defence minister, Peter Struck, is claiming that the Tornadoes are being despatched on a war mission, while defence minister Franz-Josef Jung is arguing that reconnaissance isn't a war mission.

Pending parliamentary approval, Deutsche Welle is recording the reaction of the German press which, it says, is also questioning the nature of the mission and whether it breaches its "reconstruction mandate" in Afghanistan.

Up front is Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, which has run several articles (accessible here) followed by a caustic commentary headed: "A Little Bit Pregnant". "Behind all the efforts to limit the Tornados' task and not let it look like a war mission is the hope of being a little bit pregnant in international politics," the paper sneered. It did not approve of "Participating in what is considered an unavoidable fight (for the closest allies) against transnational terrorism and its supporters without having to get one's own hands too dirty, or even burn them."

Moreover, it added, while the aircraft can photograph also the flowers in the garden of the secretary of defense, in Afghanistan they are to locate the enemy so that it can be fought. The terrorist with a shoulder-launched air defence missile will not be making a fine distinction between the "good" reconnaissance planes and the "bad" bombers called up by them.

Berlin's Tagesspiegel noted that the politicians were not helping to clear up the matter with their ambiguous statements, asking, "So is it a war mission or not?" the Tagesspiegel questioned. "Probably both are right somehow,” it concluded. "Jung, when he says that the Tornados won't directly intervene in the fighting with their canons. Struck, when he says that the overall mission in Afghanistan is a war mission. It just gets a bit complicated when the government means two different things with the same word."

Die Welt commented that the Tornados "would not alter the character of the existing mission," arguing that sending the aircraft was a simple decision. "The government's decision to send the jets is practically a matter of course," it wrote. "They will contribute to improving reconnaissance in the Hindu Kush for the Bundeswehr, its threatened allies and the civilian population. Even more than that: it underlines the fact that Germany isn't ambivalent to the fate of its partners."

The Leipziger Volkszeitung took up the issue of Germany's responsibility as a Nato member. "The Tornado decision is a reaction to pressure from Brussels and Washington, but it's also a necessary consequence of solidarity with the alliance," it commented, adding that it would be irresponsible to leave the country in the Hindu Kush to the mercy of the Taliban."

With the parliament still to rule, it is by no means certain that final approval will be given, and the political strains arising from the debate could further weaken chancellor Merkel, who is looking increasingly disconnected.

And there is far more to this than just the deployment of a handful of combat aircraft. Their use in an overseas theatre goes to the heart of Germany’s emerging ambitions for an independent foreign policy, as well as being a yardstick against which her post-war rehabilitation can be measured.

Readers comments in Deutsche Welle are, therefore, of special interest and I was especially taken with this one from Charles Ritzel. He writes:

The war in Afghanistan is a great opportunity for Germany. It is an opportunity to join the Anglo-American alliance. This was a dream of Bismarck and could propel Germany to the leadership of Europe. The German people should not sit on the fence.
I suspect that this is not a mainstream view, but it is a view and it must worry the French who are seeing their grip over Germany beginning to weaken – more so since Jung has told the Welt am Sonntag newspaper that he has not ruled out sending German special forces to the more violent southern regions of Afghanistan, where they would be directly invoked in fighting, alongside Nato (but not French) allies.

In some respects, these developments are far more significant than Merkel's new-found but ultimately futile enthusiasm for the EU constitution. On the other hand, they may be connected. It has always been at the core of the post-war settlement that Germany military expansion should be contained within a pan-European framework, as is discussed in my colleague's prescient piece on the German national identity.

In that context, it would certainly be consistent with Germany's recent past if it sought to balance overseas military intervention with a commitment to greater European integration, in order to reassure the French that they remained under control.

But, to borrow from FAZ's line of thinking, you can't be "a little bit pregnant" when it comes to European integration either. It looks like we are creeping towards the point where Germany is going to have to consider who it wants to father its foreign policy.

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