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Germany Comes up Small on Libya -- Wrong Time to Duck Responsibility

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Germany's place on the world stage has been undercut time and time again over the last year and a half by the unfortunate elevation of a foreign minister lacking both vision and skill -- but never as unfortunately as in the last week.

It's too early to work out just why Germany abstained on the United Nations vote authorizing the use of military force against Libya, but the vote was clearly a fiasco both for Germany and for the future of European diplomacy in the world. Put simply, Germany is and must be the single most important leader of unified Europe, given its economic strength, and the clumsy stance on Libya has cleared the way for France to assert itself in a way that delays any hope of Europe coming of age politically in the world as a combined political entity.

This is the fault of Germany, pure and simple, and it is the fault of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, both for a failure of perspective and, I would argue, especially for the disastrous decision to accept the seemingly inevitable a year and a half ago and elevate Free Democrat leader Guido Westerwelle to the position of foreign minister, even though he seems to have no interest in the job. Westerwelle is also the leader of the Free Democrats as well as vice chancellor, and both jobs clearly hold his attention far more than that of foreign minister. As I wrote last year in my regular column for the Berliner Zeitung, it has been as if Germany has no Foreign Minister.

Worst of all, numerous indications are that German caution on the Libya vote had mostly to do with calculations on domestic politics -- and that those calculations are in error. The Obama administration and all too many commentators who should know better have been remarkably tone deaf on the question of German involvement in the war in Afghanistann; in fact, Merkel has pushed that involvement to the limit with German public opinion increasingly against German military deployment in Afghanistan.

That, however, is no reason not to join the world in saying enough is enough in Libya: According to a Reuters dispatch, "a poll by the Emnid institute showed this week that 71 percent of Germans would support military intervention against Gaddafi."

This reeks of simple German stubbornness: That is, not being able to react quickly in real time to changing circumstances. The question of military intervention in Libya is a difficult one that caused great problems for the Obama administration as well, but in the end they reacted to changing realities on the ground and shifted their position, as this Foreign Policy piece by Josh Rogin summed up nicely.

That article explains:

"U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon also said on Thursday that the justification for the use of force was based on humanitarian grounds, and referred to the principle known as Responsibility to Protect (R2P), 'a new international security and human rights norm to address the international community's failure to prevent and stop genocides, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. Resolution 1973 affirms, clearly and unequivocally, the international community's determination to fulfill its responsibility to protect civilians from violence perpetrated upon them by their own government,' he said."

Germany, hobbled by poor leadership, could not react to events with clear thinking and, most likely, places itself on the wrong side of history. This is unfortunate -- especially given the fact that a strong position on Libya might have helped Germany to ease itself out of its commitments in Afghanistan, which are political poison at home; instead, German leadership actually seems to be calculating that it can get more involved in Afghanistan to make up for its ham-handed reaction to the Libyan crisis.

Westerwelle, put bluntly, is simply not a statesman. He comes up small any time he is asked to see the larger world beyond Germany. This has been his strength in years past and has, arguably, played a role in turning German focus more inward over the last year and a half. But now it has turned to a weakness with him miscast in the role of contemporary Germany's answer to Konrad Adenauer, Hans-Dietrich Genscher or Joschka Fischer.

Much of the criticism directed at Germany in recent months for becoming more assertive on the world stage and more willing to go its own way has been misplaced; as an American living in Berlin for the most part since 1999, I think history will see this evolution as in general a necessary and inevitable trend toward greater self-confidence. However, the mistake on Libya gives fuel to critics who see German intransigence as a goal unto itself.

As the Guardian wrote, "It's clear that Westerwelle enjoys playing the role of Germany's pacifist-in-chief. Speaking in his office in Berlin on Friday morning, he justified his skepticism about a military intervention yet again. The German government sees 'significant dangers and risks', he said, meaning that it could not support the whole resolution. Westerwelle has been striking exactly that tone for weeks now. At first, his stance earned him praise, even from the opposition. But now, given the risk that Libyan rebels could be massacred by Gaddafi's troops if they do not receive military help, Westerwelle's position seems oddly out of touch with reality."