An Acrimonious Abstention
The debate in Germany over Berlin’s decision to abstain from the UN Security Council resolution 1973 for a no-fly zone in Libya is increasing in both intensity and acrimony.

Merkel and Westerwelle have been put on the defensive by critique coming from both opposition voices in Berlin as well as those even within the coalition government. The accusations that Germany has isolated itself within Europe and the NATO alliance with the abstention are made by some in public but by many more in private.

As the attacks against Gaddafi’s forces have increased over the past few days, both sides of this debate have strengthened their arguments.

Dissecting Berlin’s Case
The government’s case that support for the UN resolution would have required sending German troops to Libya remains the core of its defense. How could we support the resolution and then not send troops, goes the logic. In addition, the emphasis on using more effective sanctions to contain Gaddafi’s aggression was deemed the more effective course over engaging in military action. Then there is the argument that the rebels in Libya do not represent the same type of opposition seen in Tunisia or Egypt in the past weeks and that Libya is embroiled in civil war in which Germany cannot intervene. The Merkel-Westerwelle team argues that Germany is not alone in Europe or the world, pointing to others in the Security Council – not only Russia and China but particularly India and Brazil – who also abstained in last week’s vote.

While all these arguments appeal to a German public which is already against Germany’s presence in Afghanistan and generally favors the rejection of military force as a viable tool for such conflicts, the counter-arguments underscore a continuing struggle in Germany over its role on the international stage. The attempt to differentiate between the need to stop a dictator from mass-murdering his own people and the unwillingness to use force to achieve that goal is strained to say the least. Arguing that Gaddafi can be stopped by strengthening sanctions when he is threatening to systematically and immediately kill the rebels fighting against him lacks credibility when one looks at the unfolding humanitarian crisis on the ground.

Furthermore, arguing that the UN resolution would have immediately required the engagement of German troops in the Libyan conflict is also jumping to an unnecessary conclusion as every member of NATO can determine its resources available. The need for ground troops in Libya – particularly from Western nations – is questionable to begin with and is not part of the UN resolution. The struggle in Libya is finally a Libyan challenge to get rid of Gaddafi. The question is how to help that homegrown effort without undermining it, and the overwhelming presence of Western troops could certainly do just that.

Not the Only One, But…
The UN resolution was designed to stop a calculating murderer from carrying out his goal. And the ability to assemble a unified political message to Tripoli is a measure of the strength of that resolution. The fact that China and Russia also abstained from the Security Council vote was expected, given their usual attitudes toward interventions. In that light, even the abstention was considered an accomplishment. India and Brazil do not see themselves centrally involved by the Libyan crisis but they also did not vote no.

But it was Germany’s argument to abstain on principle which underlines its unique stance – and undermines its credibility when it comes to responding to this immediate crisis. “Germany must not engage everywhere,” Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said. But then what are the criteria for when, where, and why to engage the German military? Several thousand German troops have been carrying out numerous jobs around the world, in Afghanistan and Africa among other theaters, and have done so for many years. The German emphasis on the need for a legitimate mandate from the UN has always been high on the priority list (although that was seen as dispensable in the case of the war against Serbia in 1999). The UN supplied one last week, but it was not enough for Germany this time.

So that raises a major question: At what point can Germany be counted on when it comes to dealing with such cases of interventions as in Libya? Several other questions follow this as well, namely what is the difference between yesterday in the Balkans and today in Libya? And because we do not know how things can or will end in Libya, does that suggest that we cannot respond to the immediate humanitarian crisis?

Skeptical Publics
Even though Germany is currently the focus because of its abstention, this debate is shared elsewhere in Europe and in the United States. The battle in Washington between those advocating for intervention and others warning of a long-term, expensive, and messy engagement is in full gear. Critics of Obama are asking for explanations about U.S. interests in Libya and also about how much of the burden the U.S. is going to be carrying with this third war in the turbulent region. Others are critical of the president for not informing Congress before acting. These debates are nothing new in Washington and they are legitimate. Despite dragging its feet up until last week, the White House knew that it could not (and should not) avoid voting for a strong UN resolution even if there questions remained about how the Libyan situation will evolve. Gaddafi’s announcement that he would eradicate the rebels was the tipping point. But Obama still has to face the challenge of explaining his decision to a public already exhausted by Iraq and Afghanistan.

The debate flying across the Atlantic at present also recalls those two wars, especially Iraq. In February of that year, then-Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer publicly told U.S. Defense Minister Rumsfeld “I am sorry, I am not convinced” that an attack on Iraq was required. Because Germany refused to be a part of the coalition of the willing, Berlin and Washington had one of its worst confrontations over that argument. Today, Berlin is again saying that it is not convinced that a military intervention is required and therefore refuses to be a part of today’s coalition of the willing militarily engaged in the UN resolution.

Among the differences between now and then, one sees the environment of a Middle East in which dictators like Mubarak and Gaddafi are being challenged by their own people. One also sees a different role of the United States, not pushing to take the lead in this situation as it did in Iraq. That leaves Europe facing its own responsibilities in its own neighborhood – and that includes northern Africa.

The Year of Europe?
It is an odd twist of fate that the UN Security Council resolution is number 1973. It was in that year that Henry Kissinger pronounced that it would be the “Year of Europe” – an odd prediction in retrospect. Almost four decades later, the European Union has evolved in multiple ways to become a larger, wealthier, and influential actor on the world stage. But with regard to the desired framework of a common foreign and security policy, Europe still has a long way to go.

The fact is that there is going to be an increasingly urgent need for Europe to come to grips with this challenge. The U.S. is entering a phase where not only the old mantra of wanting a more effective and capable pillar in Europe will be heard but there will be a more need for it because the U.S. is already facing more constraints on its own capabilities and willingness to intercede. Libya is a current case in point; the squabbling over the NATO command structures, making national resources available for it, reduced defense budgets, and national egos reflect a state of indecisiveness in the alliance.

Germany’s Central Role
Whatever mix of resources and policies Europe chooses to apply to its challenges, Germany is going to play a central role. Today, Berlin is clearly struggling with how to define that role. When faced with an existential situation such as in Libya, its response to date has been to reject short-term military options, engage in mid- and longer-term measures like sanctions, and to argue that it is being consistent because engaging in Libya would mean having to engage in many other troubled countries around the world. In principle that may be true; in practical terms, that cannot happen. And allowing that argument to get in the way of engaging in immediate crises would be irresponsible.

As the conflict unfolds in Libya, UN resolution 1973 can be seen as a benchmark for measuring the capacity of Europe and the alliance to speak with a firm and committed voice. During the past four decades, there have been many steps forward and backward. Today’s challenge in Libya and indeed in the entire region is an opportunity to again speak and act with a common purpose, in both the short- and long-run. The changes in the Middle East have made the need for both quite evident. After all, it is Europe’s own neighborhood.


This essay appeared in the March 25, 2011, AICGS Advisor.