Germany Draws Criticism For Sitting Out Libya Effort

May 11, 2011

NATO stepped up its attacks on Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's forces this week, with intensified airstrikes on ammunition, supply and command sites in several cities, including the capital, Tripoli.

But one of the pillars of NATO — Germany — was not involved. Germany is not participating in the U.N.-backed effort to protect Libyan civilians.

Germany's decision not to take part in the NATO air war has come in for withering criticism at home and abroad. And it may have dealt a blow to the country's efforts to win a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council.

Now, as Syria's autocratic government cracks down on protesters, Germany and other Western powers are facing tough questions about when and how the West should militarily intervene to protect civilians pushing for democratic change.

Abstaining From Leadership?

At a news conference Tuesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel sounded defensive when asked if Europe's economic powerhouse was taking its political responsibilities for NATO and the United Nations seriously.

"Germany is a member of the U.N. Security Council and looks to fulfill all its duties," she said. "Even though Germany abstained, for me, it was clear that as soon as the U.N. resolution on Libya was passed, it was also our resolution. It is our resolution and we are just as interested to see it carried out successfully as, say, Britain, France and the USA."

But saying it's "our resolution" and abstaining is seen by many in Europe as an abstention of leadership — one that reinforces the decades-old image of Germany as an economic giant but a political dwarf.

"You can't just say, on the one hand, 'Gadhafi must go,' and on the other hand, 'We're not going to do anything about it and, in fact, shouldn't do anything about it,' " says Josef Joffe, the editor of the influential weekly Die Zeit and a senior fellow at Stanford University. "Those are the contradictions which expose you to ridicule and loss of respect in the community of nations."

A Departure From Post-War Foreign Policy

Joffe believes Merkel and her foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, cost Germany vital political currency — respect and reputation — by violating a bedrock principle of German foreign policy: Act with as many others as possible, and always avoid going at it alone.

"That has been the first commandment of post-war German foreign policy. And for the first time in that 65-year post-war history, Westerwelle maneuvered the country where it was all alone," Joffe says — or at least in the company of China, Russia, India and Brazil in abstaining from the Libya vote.

These are important trading partners, points out analyst Constanze Stelzenmuller, but dubious bedfellows for Germany to cozy up to on issues of war, peace and democratic change.

"I think it makes Germany's campaign for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council look pretty hopeless," she says. "Having had the Eastern European revolutions of 1989, we ought to recognize these revolutions, the Arab Spring, for what they are: people wanting freedom, access to education — they want freedom from fear. Surely that's something we ought to support."

Germany today has about 5,000 soldiers in Afghanistan — a near decade-old mission that remains highly unpopular at home. And Westerwelle asked some of the same questions about Libya that Germany and its NATO allies have grappled with in Afghanistan for years: What is the end game? What does victory look like? What's the risk of mission creep? And what is the exit strategy?

A Loss Of Respect?

Stelzenmuller, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, says the criticism of Germany is only partly fair. Western nations are opening themselves up to charges of hypocrisy: The West moved relatively quickly to intervene in Libya but, so far, is doing little beyond limited sanctions against Syria amid a brutal crackdown on protesters that has killed hundreds.

"In Syria, you have a dictator who every day is killing Syrian civilians who are demonstrating courageously for freedom," she says of strongman Bashar Assad. "It seems to me that within Europe — and within the trans-Atlantic relationship — we're unable to even come to grips with an analysis of the situation, much less policy recommendations, much less when and where to use the military with any good effect. And we'll have to have a stronger European and trans-Atlantic position in order to make Assad stop murdering his own people."

The European Union this week is ratcheting up diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions on Syria. The German government says it's in the forefront of that effort. But critics say the damage is done.

Westerwelle, the German foreign minister, argued at the time of the U.N. vote and after that the world knew too little about the power dynamics inside Libya — and too little about the rebels — to effectively help. Germany, he said, risked getting bogged down in Libya's civil war.

But his critics say the international law concept of protecting civilians should be at the heart of post-war German foreign policy and that the country missed an important opportunity to exercise leadership in its own neighborhood.

"That may seem abstract," Die Zeit editor and publisher Joffe says, "but I think foreign policy reputation is an important asset. And Germany is taken a lot less seriously now than it was a few months ago." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit