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The German View

There has been much talk about the improvement in American-German relations since Angela Merkel, who grew up in Communist East Germany, took over as chancellor and Gerhard Schroeder, her oleaginous predecessor, who used anti-Americanism as one of his central campaign issues, left office to take a job as a shill for a Kremlin-owned oil company. There is no doubt a great deal of truth to this talk. But, as I discovered during a week as a guest of the American Academy in Berlin, the two countries’ perceptions remain as far apart as ever on a variety of foreign-policy issues.

In the U.S., the biggest issue at the moment is the Iraq war. In Germany it is missile defense—specifically an American plan to deploy a limited missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic to provide protection against Iranian missiles. Russian President Vladimir Putin, even though he knows the planned shield is far too small to interfere with Russia’s massive ICBM force, has vehemently decried this as an act of aggression against his country. (How can a defensive system be aggressive? To answer that question would require a long foray back into the arms-control theology of the 1970′s and 80′s.)

The Germans are in a tizzy because they don’t want to offend Russia. Many still see the country’s role as being a “bridge” between East and West, much as in the cold-war days of Willy Brandt’s ostpolitik. A cynic might note other German interests, such as keeping natural gas from Russia flowing. But whatever the cause, various German officials I spoke with anxiously inquired if there was some way to compromise on the missile-defense plan so as dampen growing tensions with Russia.

Germans are also anxious to compromise with Iran. A number of them wanted to know if the U.S. was serious about attacking the mullahs’ nuclear program. They have been reinforced in their preference for talk over military action by the quagmire they see in Iraq. They wonder why Americans can’t see the light too.

Germans are now willing to send their military abroad—but only if it won’t be used for combat. The Bundestag has just approved the deployment of six Tornado aircraft to southern Afghanistan following a wrenching debate, even though the Tornados will be used for reconnaissance only. As for German troops, some 3,000 of them are in Afghanistan, but they are not allowed to venture anywhere where they might get shot at; they are not even allowed to come to the aid of NATO allies who are under fire. The German officers I spoke with seemed eager to take a more direct role in the fighting, but the consensus of politicians and journalists was that this will never happen.

Why not? An American observer offered an interesting explanation. It is not so much that the Germans are afraid of getting their own troops killed, he said; they are more afraid of what their troops might do. They realize that counterinsurgency is a nasty type of warfare and that troops of any nationality are liable to commit some excesses. Germans, this American suggested, are deathly afraid that combat atrocities might revive old stereotypes about German militarism. Thus the Germans will continue to stress “soft” power while we (and, to a lesser extent, the Brits) perform the “hard” tasks.


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