'I Am Not Convinced' Joschka Fischer on Germany's 'No' to the Iraq War

In the second installment of his memoirs, former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer describes his misgivings over Gerhard Schröder's absolute rejection of an invasion of Iraq, his fears that France might not oppose the move and how developments in the run-up to the war badly damaged his relationship with the chancellor.

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Joschka Fischer served as Germany's foreign minister for seven years. He justified Germany's participation in the war in Kosovo and in Afghanistan, but he also rejected his country's involvement in the US adventure in Iraq. The second volume of his memoirs, which is released in German this week, focuses on the bitter conflict between the German government and the Bush administration as well as the former foreign minister's own serious arguments with then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. Fischer served as deputy chancellor and foreign minister from 1998-2005 in a coalition government in which the Green Party was the junior partner to Schröder's center-left Social Democrats. The period marked the first time the Green Party formed part of a federal government in Germany. The following excerpt is from Fischer's new book, "I Am Not Convinced. The Iraq War and the Red-Green Years."


Every administration enters a difficult phase when it is reelected for the first time, when something completely new begins, unnoticed, as the status quo continues. This is why it seems easier for an administration to pull off a successful second term than it really is. The key players, with their accumulated experience, are likely to be over confident, and believe that everything can continue as before. But appearances are deceiving.

In the autumn of 1998, we were filled with inner joy and excitement when President Roman Herzog handed us our letters of appointment as federal cabinet ministers. Four years later, however, everything that had been unusual or even magical had given way to the daily routine of governing. This unrecognized turning point following a re-election is often the root cause of the coming decline and even failure of a government. From that point on, it lacks the central motif of re-election, namely validation.

Chancellors undoubtedly want to be re-elected for a third and a fourth term, but the central motif of action has changed decisively, because some kind of imperative is missing. And chancellors secretly know that eventually they will be voted out of office, unless they resign first, because all power in a democracy is bestowed for only a limited time.

On Sept. 25, 2002, only three days after the election to the national parliament, the Bundestag, the coalition negotiations began at Willy Brandt House, the headquarters of Gerhard Schröder's Social Democratic Party (SPD). This haste would prove to be a huge mistake, because we were all exhausted and had reached the limits of our capacity as a result of the numerous crises, the rigors of day-to-day governing and the extremely long election campaign.

The US Moves Closer to War

In addition, because the location of Willy Brandt House is not far from Berlin's government quarter, the numerous media representatives were only too pleased to take advantage of the opportunity to actively participate in the negotiations. The press was briefed every day, officially by the party leaders and unofficially through the chatter of interested participants in the coalition negotiations. Our media amplifier, in other words, was in place -- but the booming message it broadcast throughout the country sent many voters into a state of shock and caused the chancellor's credibility in opinion polls to melt like snow on a hot summer's day. The crash was brutal.

In foreign policy, our goal now was to repair our relationship with the United States as much as possible (or, to be more precise, the relationship between the chancellor and the president), as well as to continue to devote all our resources to avoiding a war with Iraq. George W. Bush had not congratulated Gerhard Schröder on his re-election, which was unprecedented in the history of German-American relations since the establishment of the Federal Republic of Germany.

Meanwhile, the United States was moving closer to war with Iraq. On Oct. 10, a large majority of lawmakers in the House of Representatives and, on the next day, in the Senate had approved a resolution that authorized the US president to go to war against Iraq.

This resolution was essentially nothing less than a declaration of war against Iraq by the American Congress. Now the only hope of avoiding a war, with all of its fatal consequences, lay with the United Nations Security Council in New York.

It was impossible for me to leave Berlin during the coalition negotiations to make a trip to Washington. But now that the negotiations were over, this trip was an urgent necessity, and so I left for the American capital on the morning of Oct. 30. I flew across the Atlantic in the company of a large press contingent, a reflection of the understandably great interest the deep rift between the governments in Washington and Berlin had generated. Because I intended to meet only with Colin Powell in Washington and not with any other member of the American government, we already anticipated the negative tone of reporting in the German media, which, in light of the situation, was unavoidable. And that was exactly what happened.

When Secretary of State Powell and I met privately, we mainly discussed the need to repair the bilateral relationship between the two leaders. We agreed that it would be impossible to maintain at least a businesslike working relationship, both bilaterally and within the alliance, unless there was at least a reasonable professional contact between the two leaders. The negative example that had been set by American Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who had simply ignored his German counterpart Peter Struck in Warsaw a few days after the German parliamentary election, and had then pointed out that someone who is in a hole ought to stop digging himself in more deeply, made it clear that a similar situation could not be repeated during the NATO summit (eds. note: on Nov. 21, 2002) in Prague. Rumsfeld's Warsaw comment later became emblematic for the failure of the Bush administration's Iraq policy after the end of direct combat operations and, in this regard, justifiably reflected poorly on him.

The second topic of our discussion was Iraq, specifically the resolution being drafted in the UN Security Council. On the one hand, the United States was working toward a joint resolution. On the other, the president would not allow his hands to be tied and would not accept any development that excluded the use of his military options.

A Contradiction of Germany's NATO Obligations

From the very beginning, Germany's "no" to the Iraq war contradicted our obligations within NATO, which continued to apply, and this contradiction could be neither eliminated nor denied. For this reason, it was a very thin line we were forced to walk by saying "no," and it required a precise balancing act, which is why, before making any decisions, we discussed the recurring questions at length within the innermost circle of the government, which included the chancellor, the foreign minister, the defense minister and the head of the Chancellery (eds. note: a ministry-level position and member of the cabinet).

Our government was later accused of playing a double game during the Iraq war, and it was claimed that we had at least indirectly supported Guantanamo and other American practices in the war on terror, practices that were in crass violation of international law and the prohibition of torture. Although the accusations disappeared over time, and although the charge that we were playing a double game was simply untrue, the mere attempt to challenge the legitimacy of the Schröder administration's historic "no" to the Iraq war highlights the difficulties, ambivalence and even inconsistency that our administration was dealing with at the time.

In addition to saying "no" to the Iraq war, we also agreed within the government that this did not mean we could overlook or even jeopardize our far more extensive foreign policy and security interests. The United States remained indispensable to the security of Germany and Europe, and a war with Iraq wouldn't change that. For all of these reasons, we wanted to continue having American troops stationed in Germany, troops that would now be deployed to Iraq.

This situation forced us into a balancing act, one of which the SPD-Green government never made a secret: the flyover rights for American military aircraft, the use of the German military to guard American installations, the deployment in Kuwait of Fuchs armored reconnaissance vehicles, which could detect the use of chemical weapons, etc., were all part of it. But our government would never have crossed the critical line, namely to secretly support the Iraq war contrary to our public rejection of the war. Such an accusation is simply baseless.

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BTraven 02/17/2011
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Madeleine Albright had already left the foreign office when Germany was asked to take part in the invasion of Iraq so Fischer’s doubt about Schröder’s strict rejection of any involvement in the war sounds quite strange to me. A leading green politician who had rejected to do his basic military service but later contemplated deploying forces in Iraq have completely lost his credibility.
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