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October 18, 2005

The New German Government and Iraq
Posted by Derek Chollet

Last week, Germany’s two major parties on the right (CDU) and left (SPD) agreed on a “grand coalition” to lead the country in an unusual power-sharing arrangement: the CDU’s leader, Angela Merkel, will become the new Chancellor, yet the SPD will retain the majority of the government ministries (8 to the CDU’s 6), including such crucial ministries as foreign, finance, and justice.  The SPD announced their choices for ministries last week, and Merkel unveiled her choices yesterday.  So Germany’s new government appears set.

With Germany in need of deep reforms (just to name a few challenges: it has a stagnant economy, aging population, crumbling education system, and serious immigration problems), this arrangement seems closer to a recipe for gridlock than dramatic change.  And after spending a few days in Berlin last week listening to German government officials and thinkers (I was there at a conference hosted by the SPD’s think tank, the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung), it’s clear to me that no one really knows what the government agenda is going to look like – and that there is going to be a lot of debate about what kinds of changes Germany’s voters actually want.

The conventional wisdom is that with Merkel in power, Germany’s relationship with the U.S. will be smoother – her predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, famously stoked anti-Americanism during his last election in 2002, and goes out of his way to remind people that Germany made the right call on Iraq.  Merkel has already met with Bush, and it was no secret that official Washington was rooting for her.  But while the tone might be better, few expect the substance of Germany’s policy towards important issues to change much.

This is especially true with Iraq – which is, not surprisingly, one of the starker contrasts I found between the debates in Berlin and Washington.  In Germany, the Iraq debate is still only about the past – why things went so wrong, why the U.S.-German relationship became so spoiled, and how we have to fix it.  The Germans don’t seem to have really clued into the dominant discussion here, which is how we are going to get out.

This is especially troubling because how we get out matters to them. German leaders are quick to say that what happens in Iraq is clearly in all of our interests – after all, Iraq is a lot closer to Europe than the U.S. – and they point out that they are providing modest help, such as debt relief and training.  But they know that it’s not much.  And even though they agree that Iraq’s future matters for them, they don’t seem to have much of an opinion about what to do about it – whether or when troops should leave, or how they could do more to ensure an outcome that is in their interests too.  It's  a combination of complacency and denial.

It seems to me that the Germans have leverage that they are not using.  Merkel could come to the U.S. say publicly something like: “we’ve disagreed about the war, but now we all need a solution in Iraq, and we’re willing to think of creative ways to help you – which of course helps us.”  That would certainly influence the debate here. Yet by refusing to engage on this issue, they are doing little to give the Bush team any reason to change its policies.

But more frustrating to me is that the U.S. is not using the leverage it has to encourage our European friends to do more.  They agree that it is in all our interests for Iraq to succeed, but we’re not really asking much of them, or including them in any discussion about Iraq’s future.  Even the conference I attended – whose purpose was to promote Transatlantic cooperation – failed to do this, focusing instead on other issues like immigration, China and India, and Turkey and the EU.  The American debate about when to withdraw is itself leverage – if the European’s believe that we about to get out, they will be forced to assess how this will impact their interests (right now, they seem to believe the Bush rhetoric that we will stay forever).

Of course, using leverage does not mean that it will succeed.  Maybe it is just naïve to think that the Bush team will be swayed by anything another country says or does, even a friendly leader like Merkel.  And it may simply be that, for reasons of both politics and competing priorities, countries like Germany simply can’t do more in Iraq, even if the outcome there -- good or bad -- matters a lot to them.  But it seems worth a try.   


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It is not surprising at all that in Germany, the focus is not on Iraq per se, but on restoring US-German relations to the status quo ante. The Germans know which side their bread is buttered on.

To the extent that a rebuilding of the alliance happens, it will occur not because of new multilateral initiatives in Iraq, but because of new multilateral initiatives vis-a-vis Putin's Russia and the mullahs' Iran.

On another note, I find it disturbing that Derek frames our Iraq policy in terms of how best to get out. It must rather be framed in terms of how to insure that democracy takes root in the region, and how best to defeat Al Qaeda and company both militarily and politically.

John -- Thanks for your comment, and I very much agree on your points about Russia (one of the other shifts that might come as a result of Merkel's election is a reassessment of Germany's approach toward Russia. With Schroeder's departure, Putin is losing his closest ally in the West).

On Iraq, I did not intend to argue that the best way to frame Iraq policy is how we should get out, but rather to point out the reality that, for better or worse, that is how the issue IS framed in the minds of politicans, pundits, and most Americans. Regardless of Bush's "stay the course" rhetoric, I believe that both inside and outside the Administration the debate is not whether the US should leave, but how and when -- and, to be sure, whether we can do so in a way that ensures that we achieve the goals you've outlined, or at least redefined them so that success is possible.

Derek: Agreed in that the real debate in the US is now not "should" we get out of Iraq, but how and when so as to minimize the harm caused to us (and, hopefully, the Iraqis).

However, I don't think Merkel can say *anything* re Iraq. Remember that the FM will be Schroeder's chief of staff, so one should really expect no change, unless foreign policy is yanked away from the FM.

"I find it disturbing that Derek frames our Iraq policy in terms of how best to get out. It must rather be framed in terms of how to insure that democracy takes root in the region, and how best to defeat Al Qaeda and company both militarily and politically."

This is because you have not yet accepted defeat.

"Herring does not believe in vinegar until it has steeped for awhile."

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