Opinion: Why Germany Needs an Iraq Policy

By Guido Steinberg

Regardless whether Obama, Clinton or McCain enters the White House, the next US government will demand greater support from Germany on the international stage, especially in Iraq. But the government in Berlin is poorly prepared for this inevitability -- and that's a serious failure.

At the end of February, Barack Obama became the first American presidential candidate to say he would demand more engagement in Afghanistan from America's allies if he were elected to the White House. It's fairly certain this demand would also apply to Iraq, where the problems are far worse than in the Hindu Kush, despite improvements seen in the military situation there in 2007. Obama's contender Hillary Clinton or John McCain would also confront their allies in the West with new demands.

A US soldier with a peace symbol on his helmut: A visit by Germany's foreign minister to Iraq is long overdue.
Getty Images

A US soldier with a peace symbol on his helmut: A visit by Germany's foreign minister to Iraq is long overdue.

Germany doesn't need to worry about getting any requests to send troops to Iraq, but it will likely be asked to make a substantial contribution to help rebuild the country. If the Europeans and the Germans don't want to be faced with unpleasant surprises in 2009, then they need to determine today how far they are willing to go to support the new US government.

The most important problem is that, five years after the invasion, the European Union and Germany have failed to develop any policies for dealing with the Iraq issue. Brussels and other European capitals appear to be paralyzed by the fear that the divisions that erupted in 2002 between supporters of the Iraq war and its opponents could flare up again. The same is true of Chancellor Angela Merkel's grand coalition government in Berlin, where the wounds from the often nasty debate during the 2002 national elections still haven't healed.

The announcement by German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble in April that Berlin was prepared to accept a significant number of Christian refugees from Iraq provided the first hint that consciousness of the bad situation in Iraq might also exist in Berlin. Indeed, the time has passed when German politicians could completely ignore the Iraq conflict. Still, taking on a few refugees is no evidence of the existence of an actual Iraq policy; instead it's an ersatz measure in the absence of one. Indeed, it's not unfair for Iraqi politicians today to ask what they've already been asking for years: Why doesn't Germany show any interest whatsoever in the fate of their country?

The idleness of German politicians stands in glaring contrast to the importance of German interests in Iraq. Migration, combating terrorism, access to energy supplies and regional security are only the most important keywords. If the country continues to disintegrate, it could have disastrous consequences for the region. Already, the continuing interventions by Turkey in Iraqi Kurdistan present a danger of unbridled escalation. Meanwhile, the conflict between the US and Iran isn't only smoldering in Iraq and it could intensify at any moment. Short and sweet: Germany and Europe have a vital interest in the stabilization of Iraq, it just isn't mirrored in their policies.

But the time has come for Germany to consider concepts for a long overdue Iraq strategy. This is especially crucial if the worst-case scenario happens and the US government withdraws its troops from Iraq too hastily.

Europe's Vital Interest

At the core of this policy should be the domestic political situation in Iraq. In Baghdad, a four-party coalition comprised of Shiite and Kurdish parties is proving increasingly incapable of pushing through its agenda. For weeks now, the government, with the help of the US, has been seeking to drive the movement of the Shiite populist preacher Muqtada al-Sadr out of its strongholds in Baghdad and the southern part of the country. So far it has not succeeded and the country's political future is at greater risk than ever before. The opponents of the four-party coalition are just too strong. In addition to the Sadr movement, the government's detractors include the secularists surrounding Ayad Allawi as well as Sunni parties. These groups alternately accuse the government of representing either American or Iranian interests.

Berlin may be uncertain about whether it wants to work together with a government like that, but in reality it has no other choice. The current four-party government is the only alliance that can possibly succeed in establishing a stable central government -- that is, if it is able to successfully build up functioning security forces. A stabilization of the Iraqi state is Germany's most important interest in Iraq. But it is also true that German policies in Iraq can't solely be focused on establishing stability -- they also need to contribute to slowly transforming the government.

A starting point could be Iraqi regional elections planned for October which will, if they actually turn out to be free and fair, fundamentally shift the balance of power in the Sunni west and the Shiite south. Politicians may come to power with whom it will be possible to cooperate on a regional level. And in the future they could provide an alternative as partners for Germany and Europe to the government in Baghdad. But there are also reasons to worry that the current government has no interest in holding free elections in southern Iraq. And with their restraint up till now, the EU and Germany have given up their ability to have any serious impact on Baghdad.

Regaining the Iraqis' Trust

The first aim of a German Iraq policy needs to be to regain the trust of the Iraqi people. A first step could be increased engagement on the issue of refugees. Germany does provide considerable amount of financial support for the activities of the UNHCR, but it does a terrible job of promoting this fact.

Visits by well-known members of Merkel's cabinet could also have a corrective effect. A visit by German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, for example, is long overdue. And Germany could also step up to the plate to provide aid to the 2 million domestic refugees inside Iraq.

Iraq's neighbors also need greater support from Europe. Syria, for example, has taken on far more Iraqi refugees than it can possibly absorb. It would also be correct for Germany to take in a limited number of refugees from Iraq. To take in primarily Christian Iraqis, as Interior Minister Schäuble has proposed, would be counterproductive.

In addition, the European Union could also play a role as mediator in the conflict between Turkey and Iraqi Kurds. Brussels and Berlin both have close relationships with both actors in that conflict and could contribute to defusing it. Both Turkey and the Kurds have an interest in deepening bilateral financial ties and working more closely with the EU. However, it is still too soon for Germany to work together with Iraq on security issues. The security forces there were and continue to be too entangled in the country's ethnic and sectarian conflicts.

It is crucial that Germany and the EU develop an Iraq policy so that they can again become players in the country.

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