Some in Germany critical of decision to sit out Libya operation

As NATO takes full command of the jet fighters cruising over Libya, one member of the Western alliance continues to be conspicuous by its absence: Germany.

Europe’s most populous country and biggest economy has chosen to sit out the operation, skeptical of the aims and efficacy of armed intervention. While the U.S., Britain and France enforce the no-fly zone and insist that Libyan strongman Moammar Kadafi step aside, Germany has gone its own way in pressing for a negotiated end to the conflict and disavowing the military campaign.

But that decision is coming under increasing fire at home, from those who fear that Berlin is turning its back on its traditional partners and embracing new, more questionable ones such as Russia and China, which also oppose the use of force in Libya.

Critics say Berlin has suffered a grievous loss of credibility on the world stage and that it risks drifting toward an isolationism and complacency it can ill afford. One former German defense minister has condemned his country’s decision to break from its longtime allies as “a serious mistake of historic dimensions.”

On Friday, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, on an official visit to China, reiterated his desire for a diplomatic settlement in Libya.


“The Libyan situation cannot be resolved by military means. There can only be a political resolution, and we must get the political process underway,” Westerwelle declared in Beijing. His Chinese counterpart agreed.

The leader of the pro-business junior party in Germany’s coalition government, Westerwelle has been the lightning rod for criticism of Berlin’s stance on Libya. Since he took on the job as Germany’s top diplomat in late 2009, some well-publicized gaffes and a prickly personality have turned him into one of the country’s most unpopular politicians.

Analysts say Westerwelle does not harbor as deep an affinity for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Germany’s traditional ties as foreign ministers before him. He is more likely to take a narrower view of Germany’s national interests and to pursue them even if it means alienating old friends. This has meant, for instance, closer ties with Russia and a more relaxed attitude at times toward Iran, both influenced by trade considerations.

In the case of Libya, Westerwelle was strongly motivated by a widespread aversion in Germany to the use of military force, analysts say. One story making the rounds but vigorously denied by the German government is that Westerwelle actually wanted to vote no last month on the United Nations resolution authorizing the use of force to protect Libyan civilians.

Aghast at the virtually certain negative reaction such a vote would have generated from allies, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is said to have overruled her foreign minister. Germany ended up abstaining on the vote, which meant in effect that it was siding with Russia and China instead of allies such as the U.S. and France.

The fact that many observers give the story credence demonstrates the degree to which Westerwelle is believed to be willing to disregard longstanding relationships.

“This is the first time … that Germany stands out completely separate both from the United States and major European powers,” said Joerg Forbrig, an analyst with the German Marshall Fund in Berlin. “This is an alarming development, because it potentially distances Germany from the partners that for the last 50 years were taken for granted.”

Supporters call it a healthy independence for a country that was content for decades to meekly follow the lead of fellow Western nations, in contrition over its culpability in World War II.

And to be fair, Westerwelle’s distaste for German military involvement matches the opinion of many of his compatriots. Polls show that, while many Germans agree with the idea of military intervention in Libya, they don’t want their country to take part in it.

But that position, partly born of a deep-seated postwar pacifism, produces its own strains.

“Germany still seems to be unfit for the international role that it often aspires to,” Forbrig said. “Germany has the ambition to be a permanent member of the Security Council of the U.N. At the same time, it shows with decisions like this that it doesn’t want to share the … responsibilities that come with that decision.”

Although it belongs to NATO, Germany withdrew hundreds of Mediterranean-based military personnel so they would not be involved in the Libya operation. To show it hadn’t completely abandoned its longtime allies, Berlin agreed to send more troops to Afghanistan to make up for the drawdown.