Libya Plant Poisons U.S.-Bonn Ties : W. Germans Seen as Insensitive to Concerns Over Facility

Times Staff Writer

The row over West German companies’ involvement in building a controversial chemical plant in Libya has soured Bonn-Washington relations more than any event since Chancellor Helmut Kohl insisted that President Reagan visit the military cemetery at Bitburg in April, 1985.

This was the general impression shared Tuesday by diplomats, political observers and editorialists as the Bundestag (Parliament) prepared to debate the affair at a session today.

And the scandal over the Libyan plant, which the United States says is designed to make chemical weapons while Libya’s leader, Col. Moammar Kadafi, maintains it is for pharmaceuticals, is considered by many to be the most serious during Kohl’s six years as chancellor.

Kohl had publicly criticized the U.S. government and media for making an issue of alleged West German commercial help for the Libyan project, saying that German investigations had not corroborated what inadequate evidence the Americans had offered. Then he was embarrassed when West German officials admitted that they had come up with evidence of involvement.


“It is all the more mystifying because it was all so unnecessary,” commented one editor, noted for his conservative views. “The government could have said, ‘Yes, we have a problem with these chemical companies. Let’s attend to it.’

“Instead, they bumbled, denied the facts, temporized, became legalistic and then admitted the Americans were right--that West German firms were connected with the Libyan complex, and it was intended for poison gas. This all shows Kohl at his insensitive worst.”

Kohl has not been helped by his chief spokesman, the stolid, pipe smoking Friedhelm Ost, whose phlegmatic about-faces have added to the skepticism shown by a wide range of critics over government policy on the Libyan issue.

At a news conference Tuesday, for instance, Ost said the regular Kohl Cabinet meeting had not discussed the controversy, and when asked why not, responded testily:

“I do not have to explain why they didn’t. I don’t have to explain why they didn’t discuss the mild winter.”

One veteran journalist walked away from the conference declaring, “I don’t think these people realize how serious this is--how people in the U.S. and elsewhere are reacting to the news that the Germans are again engaged in manufacturing poison gas.”

Sources close to Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher believe the flap over West German complicity in building a poison gas factory for the erratic Kadafi can jeopardize his energetic foreign policy.

“Genscher is trying to sell the rest of the world on an absolute ban on chemical weapons,” said one associate, “and now everyone can point the finger at West Germany and say: ‘What are you up to with these chemicals?’ ”

The opposition Social Democratic Party has seized on the opportunity to castigate Kohl and his colleagues for their insensitivity on the issue, just as they did in 1985 at Bitburg, when the chancellor insisted that Reagan visit a military cemetery even after it was discovered that Nazi SS (elite force) troops were buried there.

Social Democrat leader Hans-Jochen Vogel charged the government with “leading the public around by the nose” and purveying “untruths and deceptions.”

Vogel declared that Kohl’s handling of the Libyan affair was damaging the traditional close links with Washington, at a time when large segments of West German public opinion are questioning traditional ties with the Atlantic Alliance.

‘Intolerable’ Thought

“With our past in mind,” said Vogel, “the very thought that a West German government has tolerated or even connived in the production of poison gas that could be used against Israel is intolerable.”

The West German national media, at first echoing Kohl’s statements that the West German chemical companies were simply victims of Washington’s rash and unproven charges, have abashedly now lined up almost unanimously against his position--and expressed the fear that it could harm relations with Washington.

Many editorialists criticized Kohl for his excessively legalistic approach to the charges that German firms like Imhausen-Chemie were involved in the chemical plant when he said more proof was needed, as in a court of law.

“Kohl speaks and acts as though he were not the head of government but a judge in the high court,” commented the Sueddeutsche Zeitung. “Because he has lost political control of the Imhausen scandal, he keeps repeating the formula about proof which can be used in court.”

And the Munich paper’s respected foreign editor, Josef Joffe, commented: “What’s going on between Bonn and Washington? Kohl should have realized when first being presented with the information during his visit to the U.S. that Washington by no means wanted to publicly compromise the Germans, let alone to accuse them.

“Bonn’s actions do not demonstrate greater self-confidence, as the departing U.S. ambassador to the federal republic, Richard R. Burt, recently stated. The shrill tone revealed old reflex reactions that appeared to have been long overcome: whininess, paranoia and aggressiveness, as they used to surface in the past whenever the Germans felt prosecuted.”

And calling attention to how newspapers had at first been deluded by Kohl’s statements, commentator Georg Streiter wrote in the Hamburger Morgenpost: “We were willing to join Kohl and his friends in their bitching about the evil Americans who were making us look impossible with their allegedly hair-raising and unjustified accusations.

Enough Potential Friction

“Now we look even more impossible. All those of us who issued the big denials will now have to eat their words, one by one. And what about us?

“We would like to sink into the ground: once again the Germans, once again weapons, and, on top of it all, once again poison gas.”

That Kohl let the controversy with the United States over the Libyan chemical plant get out of control worries many pro-American Germans.

They point out that there is enough potential friction with the United States anyway: the row over the European Community’s decision to ban American hormone-fed meat; an upcoming decision on modernizing short-range nuclear weapons; plans to curb low-level military training flights, which are dangerous and highly unpopular in the countryside, and differing views on developing relations with Moscow.

As one respected official, both a conservative and a friend of America, put it Tuesday: “Part of the fault lies in that we Germans have become a major world economic power, without assuming the political responsibilities to go with that status.

“We are going to have to come to grips with the fact that we are a major nation again and begin to treat our actions accordingly--to do our share in making the world more secure, not just through NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), but in other areas of world affairs, even if taking on such responsibilities may be initially unpopular.”