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Tough task ahead

August 26, 2011

Germany did not give its approval to the international military mission in Libya, to the irritation of its NATO allies. Now, after the rebel victory in Tripoli, Berlin is looking for a role in rebuilding the country.

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle
Westerwelle was keen to justify German policy on LibyaImage: dapd

As NATO warplanes recently began their 7,500th combat mission over Libya, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle (FDP) gave his analysis of the situation.

He praised the strength of will of the Libyan people and the international sanctions against the regime of leader Moammar Gadhafi. These were decisive in weakening Gadhafi's grip, Westerwelle said. The minister saw this as a confirmation of the German policy on Libya, which chose to keep its military uninvolved.

"This decision was correct," he insisted, "because we sought political solutions." Only when pressed did Westerwelle comment on NATO's military performance.

"Everyone has done their part to contribute," he said somewhat brusquely, at the same time cautioning NATO countries not to claim a success that belonged to the Libyan people.

Perhaps he was thinking of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who has proudly hailed the "victory of the rebels and the coalition," an opinion on which Berlin and Paris could not find themselves further apart.

Even Westerwelle himself does not believe sanctions alone would have been sufficient to handle Gadhafi. And rebels fighting with old weapons, unsupported by NATO's logistics, likely wouldn't have been very successful.

A Libyan soldier stands at the Tripoli compound of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi that was targeted by NATO air strikes
NATO bombs destroyed part of Gadhafi's compoundImage: picture alliance/dpa

But, of course, the current situation could not have been foreseen when NATO began Operation Unified Protector in March. It was a risky operation, as the weeks dragged on with no visible effect and rebel troops appeared to be at their limits.

Understandable concerns, controversial consequences

From this point of view, the objections raised by the German government in March seem understandable. The airstrikes could have quickly been followed by a call for ground troops, and the proverbial "slippery slope" could have ensued. It could have cost the lives of civilians and escalated into a protracted military confrontation.

Despite this, the German abstention in the crucial vote at the UN Security Council was difficult to understand from the perspective of international law. It was about the protection of the Libyan civilian population from the murderous forces of Gadhafi. He had threatened that he would show the "rats" no mercy and let his tanks shoot civilian targets. It was a clear case of the "responsibility to protect," based on the experience of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

The bitter consequences of abstention

The military would not necessarily have had to join the bombing campaign, even if Germany had accepted the UN resolution. In any case, Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) announced a few days after the vote that the government fully supported the objectives of the resolution. To support the resolution and then not contribute at all, alongside the threat of massacre by Gadhafi's men, was difficult thinking to follow.

Washington, Paris and London reacted with irritation to Germany, their otherwise reliable ally. The damage was done and the Berlin government was left isolated - the worst possible scenario for its international diplomacy.

Getting back on track

German foreign policymakers now hope to make up lost ground in post-Gadhafi Libya. But this is easier said than done. Others are already there: Great Britain, France, Italy, the United States and Turkey have long been poised to move in once the fighting subsides, and even China is alert to the opportunities now emerging in the country.

A rebel fighter climbs on top of a statue inside Moammar Gadhafi's compound
The rebel victory was not guaranteed at first, and Berlin remained cautiousImage: dapd

Above all, the NATO countries that have invested so much in the Libyan operation are doing all they can to take advantage of the new reality. And they will not be looking to work themselves into the ground. Should the United Nations decide that a mission is necessary to stabilize the situation in Libya, Germany will be asked to assist. Germany's defense minister will then "constructively consider" this option. There is little choice for him to do otherwise.

An offer of help, an uncertain future

Now, Westerwelle will be looking to forge good relations with Libya's Transitional National Council, despite the fact that in the spring, the chancellor as well as others had forcefully warned against recognizing the body officially. In the meantime, the rebels' political representatives have become acceptable to the West, despite there being little idea about how power might be shared and what strategies are to be adopted in the post-Gadhafi era.

The leaders of the council have been clever enough to maintain good relations on all sides. German investment and expertise will certainly be welcome in a country where large swathes of infrastructure have been destroyed.

Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle and Development Minister Dirk Niebel visiting Benghazi
Westerwelle and Development Minister Dirk Niebel have been forging links with the rebelsImage: picture alliance/dpa

Once Gadhafi's billion-dollar foreign accounts are reopened, the new government will not be short of money and an influx of foreign advisers and investors are sure to follow, including those from Germany.

An equation with many unknowns

The insurgents must first show whether they will be able to rise to the occasion. The task is daunting: Libya must be pacified and stabilized. Oil wealth must be distributed for the benefit of all. All the tribes and factions, in every corner of that giant nation, will need to reposition themselves within a new Libyan state.

Recent opinion in the German media, that in the coming months the federal government will have to work particularly hard to repair the damage in Libya, does not take into account the reality of foreign policy. Given the new international realities, it will not be easy for Germany to fully win back the trust of it allies.

Author: Nina Werkhäuser / st, rc
Editor: Martin Kuebler