Germany’s Future Iraq Involvement

Alexander Privitera

BRINK News & Università degli Studi Guglielmo Marconi

Alexander Privitera a Geoeconomics Non-Resident Senior Fellow at AICGS. He is a columnist at BRINK news and professor at Marconi University. He was previously Senior Policy Advisor at the European Banking Federation and was the head of European affairs at Commerzbank AG. He focuses primarily on Germany’s European policies and their impact on relations between the United States and Europe. Previously, Mr. Privitera was the Washington-based correspondent for the leading German news channel, N24. As a journalist, over the past two decades he has been posted to Berlin, Bonn, Brussels, and Rome. Mr. Privitera was born in Rome, Italy, and holds a degree in Political Science (International Relations and Economics) from La Sapienza University in Rome.

Since U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision to bomb Sunni extremists in Iraq, German public opinion has debated whether to get involved and if so, why. In its initial reaction to the crisis, the German government, sensing that its citizens would prefer to stay out of any new international entanglement, tried to suggest to its international partners, first and foremost the United States, that Berlin would be able to help civilians in the embattled country with humanitarian supplies, but not with any military aid.

This cautious and reluctant stance followed a well-established pattern by the Merkel government. It also reflected the fact that for a decade Iraq was perceived by most Germans as an American problem. After all, then Secretary of State Colin Powell had warned President George W. Bush that “if you break it you own it.” The overwhelming majority of Germans thought the United States had indeed broken Iraq, had been unable to fix it, and then had hastily abandoned the country. This interpretation was supported by the fact that even the Obama administration seemed to think that ownership of the Iraq problem squarely fell on its predecessor’s shoulders and it was time to move on.

But international challenges rarely adapt to domestic electoral timetables and short-term desires of war-fatigued public opinions. Not surprisingly, more recent developments in northern Iraq have not only dragged the United States back into the country, but the outright threat of genocide and a surprising critical reaction in German media have also caused a sudden shift in the German government’s response. Three members of Merkel’s cabinet, namely Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and the Minister of Defense Ursula von der Leyen have all opened the door for a more robust German involvement, including the delivery of some urgently needed military equipment to the Kurds in the north of Iraq.

This is the second time that the Merkel government grossly underestimated the public debate in Germany and quickly exploited the shift in mood in order to play a more pro-active international role. It happened recently when Merkel underestimated the media’s response to the democratic selection of the new president of the EU Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker. She thought nobody in Germany would cry foul if Juncker’s candidacy were to sink in the swamps of the European Council. She had to change course when public opinion suggested that abandoning the “Spitzenkandidat” Juncker flew in the face of democratic accountability. Fearful of a backlash at home, she backed Juncker and abandoned his main detractor, British Prime Minister David Cameron.

Developments in Iraq follow a similar pattern. The government misjudged public opinion and promptly tried to correct the mistake. Is this the U-turn in German foreign policy that so many ask from Germany? Is Germany really more willing to abandon the role of the reluctant hegemon in Europe and play a more active role? It depends. Germany’s critics underestimate Berlin’s already well-established leadership role when they demand more. Conversely, the latest developments should not be interpreted as a dramatic departure from Germany’s traditional foreign policy stance.

But Germans are slowly realizing that hiding from international challenges, albeit tempting, is not an option. Some might continue to dream of neutrality. But the vast majority will adapt to a new role in Europe and, possibly, in the world. Merkel’s predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, tried to force this process. Merkel has the enviable advantage that she only needs to gently nudge her people in the right direction. The process is not bump free, but it is taking place. Washington should take notice.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.