Germany and the Middle East: Looking Back and Looking Forward

Posted in Other | 02-Sep-06 | Author: Jackson Janes

Jackson Janes is member of the WSN International Advisory Board

The current debate in Germany concerning the extent to which Germans should be engaged in peacekeeping in Lebanon is an argument as well about Germany's past as well as its future. The passions about the burdens of history generate arguments both for and against German engagement as part of a European-UN force. While it appears clear that the German government has agreed to provide support in the form of rebuilding the country, the concern about the possibility of German soldiers confronting Israeli troops seems to be at the core of concerns among those who advise against any form of German military involvement. Despite the fact that even Israeli Prime Minister Olmert has welcomed the idea of German troops participating in a UN-sponsored peacekeeping mission, most Germans think sending ground troops to patrol the Lebanese-Israeli border is out of the question. The case of Lebanon renews the questions about Germany's legacy from World War II and the Holocaust and how Germans think about it in terms of today's turbulent world.

Germany's commitment to Israel for the past half-century has been demonstrated by consecutive governments, including the willingness to engage in helping to find and work on the road map to peace in the larger region. Indeed it was exactly because of Germany's history that relations between Israel and Germany were also perceived to have a special character defined by remembrance of the past and renewal of partnership. Germany has also been able more recently to serve as a reliable mediator in the region, a role in which Joschka Fischer spent much of his time and his successor is assuming as well.

German history was also the source of those who, during the Balkan wars, argued that Germany had a responsibility to be engaged in stopping the slaughter which was occurring on its very doorstep, even without a United Nations mandate. That debate centered on the German legacy, one that had demanded saying no more wars but now also had to say no more Auschwitz. While the framework of the debate was highly charged, Germans were trying to understand their past as it shaped their increasing responsibilities. The result was a gradual evolution of German readiness to engage in peacemaking and peacekeeping efforts with close to eight thousand soldiers stationed today from the Balkans to Afghanistan to the Congo.

Today, if there is to be a contingent made up of European forces sent to Lebanon, Germany will not be able to steer clear of some form of involvement any more than it could shirk responsibilities in the Balkans. But it has no intention of doing so. It is not only a moral responsibility to support peacekeeping in the Middle East; it represents straight-forward German interests as well. Whether it is the future of energy supplies or increasing turbulence in a region that is at Europe's doorstep, there are many reasons for Germany to lend its efforts to resolve the conflict in this neighborhood. Yet during and after the decision is made to provide whatever resources, Germans should also be listening to themselves and their debate about this whole set of issues because it seems as if the German public does not readily grasp where its interests and the instability in the region overlap.

According to current polls, the majority of Germans - fifty-eight percent - believe that Germany should not be involved in the peacekeeping mission efforts. Some would argue for reasons that point to the legacy of the past. Others would argue that German soldiers should not be put in danger in a turbulent region with an unclear UN mandate, a reasonable concern for any country. Regardless of the reasons, the German public appears to be more unwilling and uncertain when it comes to responding to this crisis than they have to others in the recent past.

While part of German's legacy will always carry with it the memory of the Holocaust, it is not all there is to understanding Germany's past. Indeed, the second half of the twentieth century has offered a German legacy which can be understood as a cumulative commitment to the values and the institutions that stood to protect Germany when it was on the front line of the Cold War. Sixty-one years after World War II ended, Germany has the ability and the responsibility to help others who need that protection now. That would include helping to protect those in northern Israel from rocket attacks as well as those on the Lebanon side of the border who seek safety and security in their homes and villages.

Germans need to discuss and debate not only what they can do to help but also why they should help. This is not only about a cease fire across the Lebanese-Israeli border; it is about the future of a whole region plagued by instability, fear and fanaticism, a future also closely tied to that of Europe and the rest of the world. We all have a stake in its future.

Given the current majority sentiment wishing Germany to stay out of this challenge, political leaders need to be leading that debate more effectively. They need to be explaining the costs and defining the goals. There has been a good deal of confusion in Berlin and coming from Berlin as to what Germany should and can contribute to solving the crisis in the Middle East. Some of that is part of political infighting between the government and opposition. Some of it is a reflection of real concerns about German capabilities to deliver what is needed, what other nations are doing, and what Beirut is asking for. But arguments about what Germany should not do seem to have crowded out those about what Germany needs to do. Of course, the Germans can always point to the French for a worse demonstration of such indecision.

Germany's role in the Middle East - and most especially with Israel - should always be measured with a look toward its past. But it should understand that past as a reminder to help shape the future for those seeking to end the violence in this war-ravaged region.

This essay appeared in the August 31, 2006 AICGS Advisor.

For a translated German version, please click here.

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