Opinion Obama Means Blood, Sweat and Tears for Germany

German enthusiasm for the new US administration could soon fade. The Americans made it very clear at the Munich Security Conference that they expect solidarity from their European allies -- and that means blood, sweat and tears.

By Claus Christian Malzahn

This year, it's going to be hard to escape the slew of German anniversaries. The list includes the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest 2,000 years ago, the invasion of Poland and the outbreak of World War II 70 years ago, the founding of East and West Germany 60 years ago and the fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago. In 2009, hardly any other country in the world will spend so much time intensively examining its own past as Germany.

German troops in Afghanistan: Berlin is learning that Obama expects more from America's allies.

German troops in Afghanistan: Berlin is learning that Obama expects more from America's allies.

At the Munich Security Conference, which ran from Friday to Sunday, politicians from all over the world dared to take a look into the future. As difficult as forcasts might be in this time of terrorist threats, global financial meltdown and innumerable intractable regional conflicts, one prediction can be safely made: The phase of German military intervention that began 10 years ago during the Kosovo war is in no way coming to an end, despite the fact the majority of Germans wish it would. On the contrary: The era of foreign deployments for Germans and their military forces has just begun.

In his highly anticipated speech at the conference, US Vice President Joe Biden did not make the slightest effort to talk around the problem. The good news for America's European allies is that, from now on, Washington intends to ask for their input often and to listen to it. And the bad news? "America will do more, but America will ask for more from our partners." Biden is obviously referring to Afghanistan, where the Obama administration intends to station an additional 30,000 soldiers in the near future. And let's make one thing very clear: Unlike the German forces who are helping with reconstruction efforts, the US troops are not going to Afghanistan to build schools or roads. They are going there to kill Taliban fighters, and their commander-in-chief will not be George W. Bush but Barack Hussein Obama.

Afghanistan -- which will be even more heatedly discussed in Germany than usual during this election year -- is not the only international conflict in which Germany is playing an active role. There are also the international efforts to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Here, too, the agenda of the US government appears to be clear: The Obama administration will hold talks with Tehran, but it is also prepared to pursue other avenues if such talks fail to achieve their intended goal. And that goal is non-negotiable: Iran can not be allowed to have nuclear weapons.

In his speech, Ali Larijani, the speaker of the Iranian parliament and Tehran's former chief nuclear negotiator, showed himself to be highly unimpressed by these American announcements. In fact, Larijani used his speech in Munich as an opportunity to turn the tables on the Americans. He spoke of how the United States currently has a "golden opportunity" to change its aggressive policies. He declared that it goes without saying that Iran will carry on with its nuclear program. And he said he was "surprised by the sensitivity" with which the West reacts to the subject of the Holocaust. Sitting only a few meters from the podium was former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who in 1938 at the age of 15 had, together with his family, fled his hometown of Fürth in Bavaria to escape the Nazis.

In the end, it was British Foreign Secretary David Miliband who let Larijani know in his speech that the US offer "is not going to get any better."

A US government that holds out its hand in the direction of Tehran, that offers the mullahs a guarantee they will stay in power and that is prepared to promise Iran considerable influence in Iraq -- who would have thought just a short time ago that such an offer from Washington was possible? But Larijani described such initiatives as a "carrot and stick approach" which is suitable only for "animals." Tehran would "prefer to play chess," Larijani continued. But if Tehran views its aggressive policy of increasing its influence in Lebanon, in the Gaza Strip and in Shiite Iraq as chess, what would it look like if Ahmadinejad were to start playing the world-domination game "Risk?"

The Americans will be scrupulously careful that the confrontation with Tehran does not develop into a one-on-one battle between the US and Iran. Biden's message from Munich is the following: Every NATO country and every member of the European Union is now involved, as of today. This is the price for the new trans-Atlantic openness and cooperation.

Angela Merkel and Joe Biden were all smiles at the Munich Security Conference. But uncomfortable times are ahead for Germany.

Angela Merkel and Joe Biden were all smiles at the Munich Security Conference. But uncomfortable times are ahead for Germany.

But cracks are already appearing in the German government on precisely this point. Last week Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier failed, at least for the time being, in his attempt to put together a package of potential sanctions against Iran that would be used in the event that direct talks between Washington and Tehran fail and the mullahs choose to push on with their nuclear plans. Miliband's drastic description of the situation has clearly not yet been understood by everyone in Berlin. Merkel's assurances in Munich that Germany is prepared to tighten sanctions do not change anything in that respect.

Germany's most important neighbors were sitting to the left and right of Merkel on Saturday morning as the chancellor discussed the future of European security with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk and French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Sarkozy posed a politically charged question: Does Europe want peace -- or does it want to be left in peace? The two things, he said, should not be confused with each other. In response, a British member of parliament said that she knows this difference very well -- but fewer and fewer voters know it.

Germany's neighbors made it clear just how different their stances on foreign missions are from Germany's. Tusk reported that Poland's political parties have agreed that they will not make the question of the foreign deployment of the Polish army into an issue during election campaigns. And Sarkozy made a declaration of honor on behalf of the French media and electorate: The French are ready to send soldiers to Kabul to fight for the rights of Afghan women.

Angela Merkel can expect neither of those things from Germany's political parties, voters and media. All the polls indicate that the Germans are light years away from their neighbors on these questions. While the Americans are once again giving the Germans a friendly embrace, the Germans would prefer to return to the era before the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the German army -- whose deployments have to be approved by parliament -- obediently remained in its barracks when trouble broke out elsewhere in the world. And Barack Obama will not change that, no matter how charmingly and cooperatively he packages his demands for greater trans-Atlantic solidarity -- and no matter how justified these demands may be.

In this election year, Angela Merkel and Frank-Walter Steinmeier need to explain to the electorate that there can be no way back to the era in which Germany was left in peace -- by no means an enviable task. George W. Bush's departure from office was met with jubilation in Germany. But his departure also means that Germany's poster child for its convenient policy of not getting its fingers dirty in international conflicts has now gone.

It's safe to predict that some Obama worshipers in Germany will soon be missing the 43rd president -- because things will no longer be as comfortable for Europe as they were during his time.


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