Letter from Berlin: Does Germany Need an Exit Strategy?

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German troops are seemingly everywhere from Afghanistan to Congo. But a slew of negative headlines has some in Germany wondering whether some troops ought to be brought home. The search for an exit strategy has begun.

It's a phrase that seems out of place in a discussion of the German military: "Exit strategy." For Americans, the term dredges up bad memories of times when the mighty US military has retreated: helicopters evacuating embassy personnel from Saigon in 1975; the country's hasty withdrawal from Somalia in 1993, following a fire fight which killed 18 soldiers. It also refers to the ongoing search for a plan to bring US troops home from Iraq.

For Germans, the phrase is likely to induce a confused shrug of the shoulders. The German army may be involved in cooling off a number of hotspots the world over, but the country's role on the world military stage is new. So far, it hasn't seriously had to consider having to exit anywhere.

But now the term "exit strategy" is en vogue in Berlin. Over the weekend, Germany's Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung commented that the country may start withdrawing German troops from Bosnia-Herzegovina in early 2007. Concern about the German military being overstretched has also grown as the scandal surrounding German troops playing with skulls in Afghanistan continues to dominate the headlines. Questions about just how effective the German navy can be off the coast of Lebanon have also arisen, and so have doubts about the timeline of the Bundeswehr deployment in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

"Important future role"

Chancellor Angela Merkel isn't impressed by this grumbling. Not only was she blindsided by Jung's comments; she's also staked a foreign policy claim that dedicates her to the interventionist tendencies of her predecessor Gerhard Schröder. Indeed, just last week, her government approved a new set of military guidelines that cemented Germany's growing military role. Called the White Book, the document argued that "an important role in the future shaping of Europe and beyond falls on the united Germany." Some 14,000 German troops could be deployed over five areas at any one time, the document added. About 9,000 soldiers are stationed in hotspots around the world right now.

So Jung's comments weren't particularly well received in Merkel's cabinet. "The wrong signal at the wrong time," Chancellery sources told the Süddeutsche Zeitung.

Many Germans disagree with Merkel's openness to intervention, though. President Horst Köhler on Sunday called for more "prudence" in sending soldiers overseas. Former Defense Minister Peter Struck, now parliamentary floor leader for the Social Democrats, even demanded that some missions, like the one in Bosnia, should be cut short right away. And the public is getting involved, too: A weekend survey indicates that fully 50 percent of Germans think the country should be less eager to get involved overseas.

The doubts come at a time when Germans are being confronted with a side of Bundeswehr missions abroad they had long preferred to ignore: namely, that German troops are in war zones, and war zones can be dangerous and extremely stressful. Prior to last week's shocking images of soldiers playing with human skulls in Afghanistan, two successive German governments had done their best to portray the Bundeswehr as a kind of armed social worker, stationed abroad to keep the peace and help development projects. Even 64 German military deaths overseas from the early 1990s until today have done little to alter that helpful-boy-next-door image.

A search for national interests

It's an illusion that has been helpful for a Germany that has largely just invented foreign policy as it goes along, at least since reunification. Whereas the United States has a long foreign-policy tradition -- complete with ongoing philosophical debates among conservatives emphasizing national interest, liberals promoting humanitarian intervention, and neoconservatives pushing the export of Western democracy -- Germany spent the entire Cold War cowering under the aegis American nuclear power. It's only since the mid-'90s that the country has even had to think about what its national interests are and how to pursue them overseas.

No wonder, then, that when negative headlines crop up, as they did this week, German brows start to furrow. In addition to the skull scandal, a German ship patrolling off the coast of Lebanon was recently involved in a minor scrape with the Israeli air force. And the German military's involvement in the Democratic Republic of Congo has some scratching their heads as well. The mission's aim has been to prevent violence as the Congolese go to the polls for presidential election. While there were some polling stations destroyed on Monday following Sunday's run-off election, the mission has largely been successful. But the Bundeswehr is set to withdraw at the end of November -- before the victor's inauguration, and before potentially fraught provincial elections are scheduled for December 5.

At least the Congo mission was duly equipped by the German parliament with a pull-out date. Deployments in Afghanistan, off the Horn of Africa, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, in Kosovo and now in Lebanon do not have well-defined end dates, much less clear definitions of success. The time is overdue in Berlin for a clear and coherent policy of foreign involvement -- and sooner rather than later, especially in light of the rising number of missions requesting German assistance. Germany has changed, unexpectedly, into a go-to nation with a military that can help in the world's proliferating trouble spots.

"There will always be areas where we will have to go," said Jörn Thiessen, a defense expert for the Social Democrats. "And the tendency is toward more."

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