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Libya: Merkel’s Diplomatic Catastrophe

Libya: Merkel’s Diplomatic Catastrophe

Editorial: Germany's abstention in the UN Security Council vote on Libya was a mistake. The French are wondering what's behind our Merkel's hesitation.

Angela Merkel (wef)

One of the disadvantages of political decisions is that we only learn after the fact if they were farsighted or foolish. Whether history will deem our decisions right or wrong often depends on a chain of unpredictable coincidences and uncertainties.

If the military action conducted by the international community in Libya manages to successfully take down the regime of Muammar Gaddafi, then German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her foreign minister will have overseen the biggest foreign policy failure of the Federal Republic of Germany since 1949.

Opposing our closest allies' resolution for air strikes against the Libyan regime, allowing Germany to take a stand in the United Nations Security Council alongside Russia and China - so much so that we received congratulations from Hugo Chavez - no federal government has ever made such great diplomatic mistakes. Add to this that we could not have signaled more clearly to the Libyan people how uninterested Germany is in their fate.

Last Friday, Angela Merkel clearly felt that she had made a mistake, and quickly traveled to Paris for the Libya conference on Saturday. There, she tried to appease our disgruntled partners with a commitment to provide logistical aid. Verbally, she returned to the side of the Allies. Gaddafi's last hour had come, she said, the world's patience had run dry. But it is questionable whether such words will be able to remove the doubt that has been cast upon German dependability. In France, response to Germany's position has already been devastating. The newspaper "Le Monde," in its editorial section, recently asked whether behind this "lack of solidarity" also lies a German "lack of maturity."

That such questions are even being asked can also be attributed to the clumsy actions of Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. There are of course many good arguments against a poorly prepared military strike in Libya, and the outcome of the strikes is indeed hard to predict. However, Germany's abstention in the Security Council vote was still unnecessary. Westerwelle misjudged the situation on every level: up until the middle of last week, he still expected a Chinese-Russian veto, continued American hesitation and a "no" from the Portuguese. None of this came to pass.

In the end, Germany looked foolish and Westerwelle showed himself to be a foreign minister who celebrated the scenes in Cairo and Tunis as successful revolutions in the name of freedom, but who was unable to assume any real political responsibility when this freedom needed to be fought for and defended.

Westerwelle is no Fischer

When the then Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer defended Germany's resistance to the war in Iraq to Donald Rumsfeld, he said: "I am not convinced." He was "not convinced" by the American rationale for war. Westerwelle believes that he is now in a similar position, and hopes to score points in the domestic arena by opposing military action in Libya. But Westerwelle is not Fischer. Unlike the former Foreign Minister, he is not convincing. Even the allies agree.

In this uncomfortable situation, the German Federal government may find comfort in the fact that the wind can turn quickly. Under the constant fire of live news feeds, the global media network, and emotionally unstable electorates, politics have become unpredictable. Could anyone in the Obama-crazy Berlin of summer 2008 have guessed that Obama in 2011 would be picking up where Ronald Reagan left off in 1986, by bombing Qaddafi?

Only four weeks ago, infuriated French diplomats lambasted President Nicolas Sarkozy, arguing that his foreign policy is "controlled by impulses, amateurish" and is developed only to entertain the media. France had "lost its voice in the world," they lamented. Ten days ago, Foreign Minister Alain Juppe almost resigned after the philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy convinced Sarkozy to officially recognize the opposition forces in Libya. Lévy announced the foreign-policy turn on TV while Juppe was stuck in Brussels. A week later, Juppé stood in front of the UN Security Council and argued in support of Lévy's ideas. The magazine "Nouvel Observateur," not known for its enthusiasm for the French President, cheered that France had regained its prestige in the world. Sarkozy had won a "historic diplomatic victory." Ironically, this triumph was achieved through an impulse-driven, amateurish foreign policy aimed at stirring media response.

Whether this French success will continue will be determined in the sands of the Libyan desert. One thing we can learn from the past weeks is that policy decisions cannot always be made in terms of their intended outcomes. The future, more than ever, is just too hard to predict.

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