In March 2011, the liberal-conservative government (known in Germany as the “black and yellow coalition”) decided to abstain from voting on the case of a Libyan invasion; a decision that created quite a stir. But it created quite a different kind of stir than Gerhard Schröder’s avowal of unrestricted solidarity with the US-led invasion of Afghanistan did in autumn of 2001. Similarly, even the resounding rejection of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 under the coalition of the Social Democrats and the Green Party triggered less of an emotional response than the recent abstention on Lybia has.
Much of the stir has been triggered on a national rather than an international level and can roughly be described as more of a mild surprise instead of outright indignation, as was also the case in 2003. German governments, who have traditionally held up the principle of alliance solidarity, opted to follow “national interests”, thus once again falling in line with the other great power centres of Paris, London and Washington, who, in turn, have been operating based on the same rationale for decades. The surprise, however, originated less from the actual decision but from the resilience brought forth by the conservative government against the massive pressure exercised by the Western alliance partners; a move which could have well entailed isolation. In the past, the fear of isolation as well as external pressure have often helped sway the German vote towards the anticipated outcome. But not this time.
The popular outrage, however, is not firmly entrenched within the German populace either. Rather, similar to the case of the German vote against a UN-mandated military operation against the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, an equally healthy portion of Germans today also identify with the recent military abstention in the case of Libya, as promoted most visibly by German foreign affairs minister Guido Westerwelle. Considering the Gaddafi-regime’s abundant use of violence against internal adversaries on the one hand and the clichéd excuse of not being able to intervene at each site of human rights violations on the other, the disposition to object was quite low, the key reason being the exceptionally traumatic experiences of Afghanistan, a theme which has had a great impact on popular opinion. The difficulties in meeting the lofty goal of democracy in Afghanistan were as much present as the disappointment in the more specific prospect of giving women back their rights and their dignity, the first and foremost goal of the invasion according to Joschka Fischer in 2001.
This time, however, the indignation quite remarkably sits with the political class, across all ranks of expertise and party affiliation. This is not to say that there has not been a fair amount of supporters next to policy makers Merkel, de Maizière and Westerwelle. Jürgen Trittin of the Green Party and former Merkel opponent Frank-Walter Steinmeier also put national interests first – even at the risk of losing the image of a “solidary partner” and being internationally isolated. However, the few sceptics could not drown out the cries of indignation resonating throughout the German political class – from Helmut Schmidt and Helmut Kohl, the elder statemen from the “Bonn Republic”, all the way to Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, Joschka Fischer and Ruprecht Polenz of the new foreign policy generation of the “Berlin Republic”.