The Merkel Doctrine: Tank Exports to Saudi Arabia Signal German Policy Shift

By Holger Stark

Part 2: Tanks Well Suited for Putting Down Revolutions

Photo Gallery: A German Tank Maneuver Photos
AP

In early 2011, before the request officially reached the Federal Security Council, the German government sounded out Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's opinion on the matter in conversations at various levels, approaching Israel's Foreign Ministry as well as Uzi Arad, then Netanyahu's national security advisor.

Israel had no objections at that point. Contacts between Jerusalem and Riyadh had improved in the preceding years, with Saudi Arabia becoming one of Israel's most important allies in combating Iran's nuclear program. The United States government also signaled its approval.

Krauss-Maffei Wegmann boss Haun had received a satisfactory answer: Merkel and her foreign minister had made it clear they were open to the deal.

Then, in the spring, the wave of Arab revolutions reached the Saudi royal family. Heartened by demonstrators' success in Tunis and Cairo, people in neighboring Bahrain began to protest. Fearful of losing power, the King of Bahrain requested help and on March 14, 150 Saudi tanks rolled across the King Fahd Causeway into Bahrain, accompanied by 1,000 Saudi soldiers. The tanks took up position in Manama, the capital, near the royal palace.

Officially, the soldiers from Riyadh represented a rapid deployment force working on behalf of the Gulf Cooperation Council, an alliance of Gulf States that provides mutual support. The Saudi military has close to 1,000 tanks, most of them ancient. Only one-third of them, M1A2 Abrams tanks from the US, have modern equipment.

German Leopards Could Roll Through Arab World

The German Leopard 2 tanks would also be well suited to putting down revolutions. They have an attachable "obstacle clearance blade" that can move protesters out of the way and seem as if they were made to modernize Saudi Arabia as a tank-driving military force. The lesson learned from Bahrain is that, next time, it could be German Leopards rolling through the Arab world.

In Berlin, the second phase began with Haun introducing a so-called "preliminary inquiry" at the Economics Ministry on behalf of Krauss-Maffei Wegmann, requesting information as to whether the government would authorize the sale if an order did indeed come from Riyadh. The tanks were now the business of the Federal Security Council.

The Security Council is something like a reduced cabinet for matters of security policy. It makes decisions on arms exports and meets two or three times a year. The chancellor directs the council and permanent members are the heads of the Interior, Foreign, Economics, Finance, Defense, Justice and Development ministries, as well as the chief of staff in the Chancellery, also a cabinet-level position.

Preparations for Federal Security Council sessions are made by a working group a couple weeks prior to the council session. At this preparatory meeting, representatives from the participating ministries hold initial discussions on the decisions to be made at the Council session. This time, though, the ministry representatives didn't want to make a preliminary decision. The tank deal was far too delicate a subject.

The preparatory meeting took place on May 24, a Tuesday. Just as the ministers would later do, their representatives also met in the Small Cabinet Room at the Chancellery. Christoph Heusgen, Merkel's foreign policy advisor, led the session and opened it with a suggestion: Any arms exports to Arab countries up for discussion shouldn't be handled by this group, but instead submitted directly to the ministers of the Federal Security Council, since a matter of such fundamental significance should be handled by those in charge.

A Changed Geopolitical Situation

All present agreed the Arab Spring had changed the situation. Ben Ali was in exile, in Saudi Arabia of all places. Mubarak was at a hospital in Sharm el-Sheik, under heavy security, waiting for the people to put him to trial. The talk at the Chancellery on this particular Tuesday was of a "significantly changed geopolitical situation." Peter Ammon, attending a Security Council preparatory meeting for the last time in his role as state secretary at the Foreign Ministry, before taking up a position as the German ambassador to Washington, seconded Heusgen's suggestion. The decision was officially tabled.

The German government has formulated guidelines for its arms exports, political principles following the maxim that too little is better than too much.

One of these guidelines states that the government "makes an effort to formulate its armaments policies restrictively" and that this restraint is meant "to make a contribution to securing peace, prevention of violence, human rights and lasting development globally." The phrasing makes a moderate level of exports sound like a sort of armed development aid. The general principles also include that "particular importance is placed on considering human rights in the country in question" when reaching a decision.

In general, Germany makes a distinction between arms deliveries to European Union and NATO members and exports to the rest of the world. Arming allies is at the heart of the guidelines. For all other countries, the following applies: "The export of weapons of war is not permitted, unless specific foreign or security policy interests on Germany's part speak for granting authorization as an exception in individual cases."

How, then, does the chancellor justify this particular exception in light of the restrictive guidelines?

The preparations for the Security Council session marked the start of the third, decisive phase. The Foreign Ministry sent out a sheaf of confidential documents providing a short description of the project, along with a list of pros and cons.

The current situation in the Persian Gulf and the possibility of use against demonstrators as part of the Arab Spring would speak against the export deal, the dossier from Westerwelle's staff read, while the Saudis' changed role in the region, as a security guarantor and an ally of the West, as well as a partner in fighting terrorism, provided an argument in favor. The diplomats refrained from making a recommendation, as is generally the case.

A Fateful Meeting

The Federal Security Council session began on June 27 at 4 p.m. Outside, the German capital was a steamy 28 degrees Celsius (82 degrees Fahrenheit) and sunny. In addition to Chancellor Merkel and her Chief of Staff Ronald Pofalla, Ministers Guido Westerwelle (Foreign Ministry), Thomas de Maizière (Defense), Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger (Justice), Dirk Niebel (Development), Wolfgang Schäuble (Finance) and Philipp Rösler (Economics) took their seats. Hans-Peter Friedrich, the interior minister, was represented by his state secretary, Ole Schröder.

Also present at the table were Merkel's foreign policy advisor Christoph Heusgen; her intelligence services coordinator Günter Heiss; Volker Wieker, inspector general of the Bundeswehr, Germany's armed forces; Ernst Uhrlau, president of the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), Germany's foreign intelligence service; Lothar Hagebölling, head of the Federal President's Office; government spokesman Steffen Seibert; and Erich Vad, the secretary within the Chancellery who coordinates the Federal Security Council's work and would be the one taking down the minutes.

Merkel turned the floor over to Westerwelle, who spoke about Turkey and its ambitions as an emerging regional power. The idea that the Federal Security Council should not only vote on arms deals but also discuss strategy is only a few years old and was initiated by de Maizière. The presentation on Turkey had already been tabled multiple times as more pressing topics arose.

When Westerwelle finished, Uhrlau followed up with the BND's view of Turkey. Both speakers painted an ambivalent picture of rising nation, a country willing to accept political risks as one consequence of its rise and no longer satisfied with depending exclusively on the West. At the end of this presentation, around 4:30 p.m., Uhrlau gathered his files and left the room. This was the agreed-upon procedure, that the BND president not be present for voting.

When the door closed behind Uhrlau, it was time to discuss exports. Rösler spoke first, since it was the Economics Ministry that had officially put the proposal on the agenda. He outlined the main elements of the planned deal and spoke in favor of it. An energetic debate followed. Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, those present for the discussion say, dissented and argued against the decision. She quoted former Genscher, an eminence grise within her party, saying he would never have agreed to such a deal. Proponents of the plan countered the justice minister by saying that this was not a final vote, only a preliminary inquiry. At this point, Westerwelle would have needed to back Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger if he wanted to stop the vote, but he didn't do so. He knew the chancellor had made her decision.

A Counterbalance to Iran

Merkel was the most passionate advocate that afternoon. She cited Israel's approval, which from the CDU's perspective removed a major stumbling block. The next argument was one very much in line with the views of the Israeli and American governments: An armed Saudi Arabia would function as a counterbalance to Iran and its nuclear ambitions.

The fight against Iran's nuclear program has been one constant during Merkel's time in office. The chancellor sees herself on the side of the US and Israel, who have repeatedly warned of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad being a "new Hitler," and at this point Merkel was under pressure from Jerusalem to increase sanctions and decrease trade with Tehran.

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