Chancellor Gerhard Schröder has ruled out German military participation in an Iraq war. But four years ago the Bundeswehr took part in NATO air strikes on Yugoslavia without a U.N. mandate. So why then and not now?
NATO strikes in Belgrade: Germany's first military deployment since World War II
Chancellor Schröder somberly addressed the nation on March 24, 1999, shortly after NATO began bombing Yugoslavia. He announced that his government had made a difficult decision.
"After all, this is the first time since World War II that German soldiers have been deployed in combat," he said. "We are not waging a war, but we must bring about a peaceful solution in Kosovo, even if that requires the use of military force."
Schröder explained that this was the reason why the German government had decided to take part in the military campaign against Slobodan Milosevic's regime.
Today, the same governing coalition of Social Democrats and Greens has rejected involvement in a war against Iraq, arguing that military intervention would only serve to further destabilize the Middle East. In 1999, the government used the opposite argument, maintaining that the Balkans would be in greater danger if Germany did not act.
Explaining the contradiction
Bundeswehr on parade.
"In Kosovo, we had a situation of ongoing danger," Social Democratic Party foreign policy spokeswoman Ute Zapf told Deutsche Welle in an interview. "It was about ethnic expulsion and impending genocide. Now, in Iraq, we have a potential threat from Iraqi weapons of mass destruction but no immediate danger." Zapf insisted the problems were very different.
Germany's opposition parties hold a different view. Christoph Schmidt, defense spokesman for the Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union, criticized the government for committing itself too early to a "no" vote on participation in order to assure Shröder's autumn reelection bid last year. Now, Schmidt says, Schröder has no maneuvering room to change his position.
"July 2002 was the point of departure," Schmidt explains. "Then Schröder tried to take advantage of the mood against military intervention (in Iraq) for the election campaign. The price was that other foreign policy options were abandoned. And now, getting out of that without losing face is hard."
Günther Joetze believes that neither of these explanations is sufficient. The former president of the Federal Academy for Security Policy has written a book about Germany's role in the Kosovo conflict and is working on a new book about its role in the Iraq crisis. Joetze ascribes the German government's differing attitudes toward Kosovo and Iraq to numerous motives. Above all, says Joetze, the government holds different political perspectives for the two crisis regions.
In Kosovo, the international community was aiming to enforce humanitarian and democratic standards, which cannot be transmitted to Iraq as easily, Joetze maintains. Furthermore, Saddam Hussein is not considered the only rogue in the region, which is why the government does not believe that a war will improve the situation.
In the case of Kosovo, Joetze says, Germany's partners in NATO expected that the German army, the Bundeswehr, would take part in military operations. The government had little choice but to say "yes," Joetze maintains. Plus, the government had only been in office for a short time and had to prove itself in the realm of foreign policy.
"The Social Democrats didn't want to start their term in government with discord in the coalition," Joetze insists. "Whereas, for Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer of the Green Party, the question was a different one. It was made clear to him (as the junior partner in the governing coalition) that he could only remain foreign minister and a governing partner if he towed the same line."
German soldiers in Belet Huen, Somalia, on a United Nations peacekeeping mission, are seen on this 1993 file photo. Politicians of the German governing parties don't approve a leadership role for German soldiers in a planned U.N. peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan. The British government offered to take over the leadership, according to Angelika Beer, the German Green parties defense policy expert, on Tuesday, Dec. 12, 2001. (AP Photo)
Today, Joetze says the government is in a different position -- not just because it has been in office for four years, but also because Germany is now the second-largest contributor of troops to international peacekeeping operations around the world.
"The defense minister and the chancellor say we continually prove ourselves to be reliable partners," Joetze says. "We are prepared to make our contribution. We can afford to have another opinion on one particular question."
"(In 1999) the only international operation the Bundeswehr was involved in was the air campaign against Yugoslavia. There weren't any German troops in Macedonia or Afghanistan yet. The issue was the first NATO troop deployment."
Besides, the mood among the population has changed in the past four years. Then, most Germans were in favor of a war against the Milosevic regime. Today, the majority rejects a war against Saddam Hussein.
In that light, Joetze defends Schröder's firm position against an Iraq war. Nor does he find the anti-war stance "reprehensible," as some members of Germany's opposition government have. On the contrary, he says, a major pillar of democratically elected representatives is the idea of listening to the voice of the people and acting on those wishes.