Muddling throughDefense minister must emancipate himself
There has rarely been a politician whose outward appearance better fitted the image of the rough soldiers' minister than Peter Struck's. When the leather-clad German defense minister was recently reminded that the chancellor had invited the entire cabinet to dinner after their meeting at the posh Neuhardenberg castle, he simply shrugged his shoulders, saying, “Pah, they can eat their canapés alone,“ and then sped off on his motorbike.
That's how one displays independence in a media democracy. The story made the rounds and reached the soldiers, but they probably never heard the rest of the story: That Struck returned a short time later, and joined the chancellor in time for dinner.
Struck will dare a minor conflict every now and then, but no more. He sees himself as the guardian of the transatlantic relationship within the Social Democratic-Green coalition government. He enjoys the role of shadow foreign minister because he, unlike Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, has strong emotional ties to the United States. Washington regards him as a partner, and the recent relaxation of German-U.S. political tensions is partly due to his willingness to assume more military responsibility.
For Struck, security policy is the nicer side of his job. He never really wanted to become defense minister, a job he only took on because the chancellor demanded it when his predecessor, Rudolf Scharping, fell from grace over a number of scandals.
But Struck is beginning to enjoy his job more. He likes his soldiers, and they appreciate the fact that - unlike his predecessors - he is not using the armed forces to promote his own career as chancellor in waiting.
Struck's long way to the Bundeswehr reflects strength and weakness at the same time. Initially, Struck seemed prepared to tackle a major military reform. He broke many taboos, for example when he stated that the Bundeswehr's missions “could no longer be limited geographically or in terms of their intensity,“ while adding that the forces earmarked for Germany's domestic defense were no longer required - a radical ideological turnabout.
Although this turnabout is necessary from a foreign policy perspective, the military's structure, equipment and training have to be adapted to its new political role. Yet Struck has lost much of his political courage, partly because of his lack of military experience. In contrast to the U.S. defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, Struck lacks any concrete ideas on how to restructure the armed forces. He simply wants to adapt them to tighter budgetary requirements.
But without allies in the military apparatus who could point out different avenues and help him control the Bundeswehr leadership, he actually has no other choice.
Struck has become dependent on the generals, undermining the primacy of political direction. The lack of real leadership has fatal consequences. Faced with the alternative of implementing a tough, but necessary reform to modernize the Bundeswehr and catch up with the British and the French, or muddling through until the end of the legislative period, Struck has chosen the latter.
The Bundeswehr has been promised that it will get an extra €800 million a year from 2007. That annual sum, the equivalent of $880 million, will be just enough to compensate for rising personnel costs, aging equipment and inflation. It won't allow for necessary new investments.
Apparently, though, Struck is beginning to realize that he will have to increase his political independence if he wants to be remembered as a reform minister.