Should He Stay or Should He Go? US Ambassador Seeks to Limit Fallout from Cables

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Should Philip Murphy, the US ambassador to Berlin, be recalled because of unfavorable comments he wrote about leading German politicians in the diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks this week? Chancellor Merkel and Foreign Minister Westerwelle are avoiding conflict in the issue. But some politicians are heavily criticizing Murphy's information-collecting practices.

US Ambassador to Germany Philip Murphy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel: German-American relations remain "trusting and close." Zoom
AP

US Ambassador to Germany Philip Murphy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel: German-American relations remain "trusting and close."

Philip Murphy is the man whose name is on many of the cables from the US Embassy in Berlin. The 53-year-old is the United States' highest diplomatic representative in Germany. And these days, he is in damage-control mode following the publication of classified documents by WikiLeaks. "I don't want to play anything down -- we are working hard to rebuild trust," the ambassador told the tabloid daily Bild.

It will be a huge challenge for Murphy. The cables from the US Embassy in Berlin that were sent to Washington depict a number of top German politicians in overwhelmingly negative terms. They provide very open and honest insight into the thinking of Murphy's diplomats.

Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who is also the leader of the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP), is among those who comes in for the harshest treatment. According to the cables, Westerwelle is a "wild card," an "exuberant personality" and " aggressive," the cables state.

The dispatches also show that the diplomats have sources within Germany's political parties who provide them with internal assessments. Now it is also clear who was delivering some of that information. Helmut Metzner, Westerwelle's chief of staff at FDP headquarters, provided information to the Americans from inside the talks between the FDP and Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives to create a coalition government following the 2009 election. Metzner has since been relieved of his post.

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Murphy, who has served as US ambassador in Berlin for 15 months, now wants to win back trust as quickly as possible. He has been generous in giving interviews, and he has launched a charm offensive on Berlin politicians. In doing so, he must perform a balancing act: On the one hand, he is defending the work of his diplomats. On the other, he is also admitting that serious damage has been caused. It's an embarrassing mission for the ambassador.

Open and Uncomplicated

This week, Murphy opened the Chanukah festival at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, just in front of the US Embassy building. As always, the public gathered at the festivities encountered a charming, intelligent man who speaks fluent German. Murphy, who is a political appointee and not from the diplomatic corps, previously worked as an economist and investment banker and has a very open and uncomplicated style. The father of four regularly invites people to the ambassador's residence in the Dahlem district and he travels all over Germany, visiting schools and youth. He knows the country well and worked for several years as a banker in Frankfurt long before he was appointed to his ambassador post.

Murphy is seeking to keep the publication of the cables from causing a strain on German-American relations in the longer term. He even discussed the issue in a previously planned meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel's chief of staff, Ronald Pofalla of the Christian Democratic Union, this week. But a number of German politicians are seriously angry at the Americans. German Development Minister Dirk Niebel of the FDP, who is referred to in a cable as an "odd choice" for his position, has said publicly what many politicians here are thinking. "It will certainly make people think much more carefully about who they speak openly to," he said.

Another FDP politician is even more forthcoming. Patrick Döring, a transport policy expert who is now expected to become the party's new national treasurer, demanded that action be taken as a result of the WikiLeaks documents. He told the Passauer Neue Presse newspaper that it made no sense for Ambassador Murphy and other diplomats who were involved with the cables to remain at the US Embassy and continue observing and commenting on German policies. "The US needs to consider whether it is still possible to have trust-based cooperation with personnel who obviously sought targeted contacts in the (German political) parties," Döring told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

Hans-Michael Goldmann, an FDP member of the German parliament, offered similar comments. "Mr. Murphy's behavior is improper," he said. "If this had happened with a German ambassador, he would have been recalled. An ambassador like that needs to be sent home," he told the mass-circulation Bild newspaper. He said he was particularly bothered by the fact that Murphy hadn't apologized.

Keeping Calm

But the German government has sought to maintain an atmosphere of calm this week following the leaks. And on Friday, Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman Steffen Seibert responded to the demands made by some members of the FDP by stating: "The German government is expressly not demanding the ambassador's recall." He said the US had made "explanatory calls" to the German government before the publication of the contents of those cables.

Seibert added that it is the opinion of Merkel's government that the publication of the dispatches "did not cause any serious damage." Some were uncomfortable and some downright irritating, but there was "nothing that has the strength or force to throw German-American relations off course," he said.

A spokesperson for Westerwelle's Foreign Ministry noted that, viewed formally, the appointment of ambassadors was a matter for the guest countries. He added that cooperation between the German government and the US will self-evidently be as trusting and close as it has been. "That also applies to the US ambassador," the spokesman said, adding that it is also Foreign Minister Westerwelle's view of the situation.

And within the FDP, party leaders sought to distance themselves from the comments made by Goldmann and Döring. A senior FDP source said the statements had neither been "agreed to, tolerated nor ordered by the party chiefs."

'Actions Rather than Words'

For his part, Murphy's modus operandi these days seems to be making the best out of an embarrassing situation. That could be seen earlier this week during a trip by the American ambassador to the southwestern state of Rhineland-Palatinate, where he met for talks with Governor Kurt Beck. In the secret cables, Beck is portrayed as a politician who "does not speak English and does not seem to look to the US as an economic, social or political model."

During their meeting, Beck and Murphy sought to transcend the embarrassing situation. Beck said that relations between both countries "rely much more on actions rather than words." And Murphy declared that, although relations might not be completely back to normal yet, "we are moving in that direction very quickly."

It sounded like a prayer.

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Reaction from the US Government
In a statement, the White House has condemned the publication of "private diplomatic discussions" with foreign governments by SPIEGEL and four other international media on Sunday. Click on the link below to read the statement in full.
White House Statement
We anticipate the release of what are claimed to be several hundred thousand classified State Department cables on Sunday night that detail private diplomatic discussions with foreign governments.

By its very nature, field reporting to Washington is candid and often incomplete information. It is not an expression of policy, nor does it always shape final policy decisions. Nevertheless, these cables could compromise private discussions with foreign governments and opposition leaders, and when the substance of private conversations is printed on the front pages of newspapers across the world, it can deeply impact not only US foreign policy interests, but those of our allies and friends around the world.

To be clear -- such disclosures put at risk our diplomats, intelligence professionals, and people around the world who come to the United States for assistance in promoting democracy and open government. These documents also may include named individuals who in many cases live and work under oppressive regimes and who are trying to create more open and free societies. President Obama supports responsible, accountable, and open government at home and around the world, but this reckless and dangerous action runs counter to that goal.

By releasing stolen and classified documents, Wikileaks has put at risk not only the cause of human rights but also the lives and work of these individuals. We condemn in the strongest terms the unauthorized disclosure of classified documents and sensitive national security information.

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