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

By Holger Stark

Part 3: A Tectonic Shift

Photo Gallery: A German Tank Maneuver Photos

Sunni Saudi Arabia is the Persian Gulf's most influential opponent to the Shiite government in Iran. Merkel and Westerwelle knew how critically the sheiks, especially King Abdullah, view Ahmadinejad, whom they accuse of destabilizing the situation in Saudi Arabia. Iran is a "neighbor one wants to avoid," the king is said to have commented internally, adding that the Iranians "launch missiles with the hope of putting fear in the people and the world." Germany also knew Washington had approved the sale of fighter jets to Riyadh.

With the US supplying planes and Israel having no objections to arming Saudi Arabia, why shouldn't Germany be allowed to export its tanks? Another argument put forth in the Chancellery that day was that the deal would be a complete package, not a one-time delivery, with Germans providing technical support, logistics and training as part of the agreement. This would give Germany long-term influence in the country, the tanks providing a point of access to Saudi leaders.

The decision was unanimous. Even Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger didn't object in the end, evidently in order to avoid making fellow FDP ministers Rösler, Westerwelle and Niebel look bad. Only Ole Schröder, representing Interior Minister Friedrich, abstained, since each Security Council vote is tied to a particular individual. The session minutes, classified as confidential, show the various arms deals discussed that day in table form. Beside the agenda item "Saudi Arabia," just one word is noted: "Approved." At around 5:25 p.m., the chancellor brought the session to a close. The ministers had taken less than an hour to make history.

Some of those present for the Security Council session met again the same evening, at a reception held by Israeli Ambassador Yoram Ben Zeev at his residence in the Charlottenburg district of Berlin. The day's policy change was not a topic of conversation that evening. The Israelis were already familiar with the deal.

Feathers Ruffled in Israel

Soon, though, Israel left the German government hard-pressed to explain its actions. When SPIEGEL uncovered the deal a week after the Federal Security Council session, a media storm engulfed the government. To defend itself, the Chancellery, via the CDU parliamentarian Roderich Kiesewetter, put forward a version of events presenting Jerusalem as the driving force behind the decision. Kiesewetter claimed in the Bundestag's plenary debate in early July that "Israel not only wanted the sale of these tanks, but explicitly supported it." This didn't go over well with the Israeli government, which had indeed signaled its consent, but didn't wish to appear to be the force secretly pulling the strings. Israel's Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon and Ambassador Ben Zeev made sure word quickly got around Berlin that the Israeli government was not among the groups that had put the decision in motion.

On a Friday afternoon in early September, at the concert hall at Berlin's Gendarmenmarkt square, the Körber Foundation, a social affairs foundation, hosted an event honoring the 50th anniversary of its Bergedorf Round Table, a series of discussion sessions on international policy issues. Merkel sat in the front row. To her right were Richard von Weizsäcker, former German president and chairman of the Bergedorf Round Table, and Helmut Schmidt, former German chancellor. For the current chancellor, it was an encounter with the past, with a time when such an arms deal would have been unthinkable.

Since June 27, Merkel had kept silent on the matter as if the very survival of the fatherland depended on it. Now she would explain her decision, speaking not about the tanks, but about her views on Germany's arms policy. She flipped through a black leather folder, a yellow Post-It note stuck to the manuscript of her speech. In the row behind her sat Christoph Heusgen, her advisor, who had helped to draft important passages in the speech.

Saudi Arabia Only the Beginning

Merkel presented a worldview in which newly industrialized countries take on greater importance and the West can no longer solve global problems alone. Her speech contained two key points. First was her statement that it is right to arm other countries in order for them to act in Germany's interest. If Germany shies away from military intervention, the chancellor suggested, "then it's generally not enough to send other countries and organizations words of encouragement. We must also provide the necessary means to those nations that are prepared to get involved. I'll say it clearly: This includes arms exports." The statement was directed at Saudi Arabia, without mentioning the country directly.

In her second key point, the chancellor outlined a new, internationally networked arms policy. "But we should try to go a step further," Merkel continued. "If we in NATO agree that the organization is not capable of solving all conflicts and that emerging, newly industrialized countries and regional organizations should take on more responsibility, then we in NATO also need to take steps toward a common policy when it comes to arms exports."

The speech provided an unofficial declaration of the German government's foreign and security policies, one Merkel chose to present not in parliament but at a concert hall. She described how her government envisages the future of weapons exports, with arms policies following new and different guidelines than in previous decades. Saudi Arabia, it seems, was not a slip-up. It was only the beginning.

The chancellor now faces a fundamental debate. Germany's new arms policy is controversial even within the government. Several ministers have expressed doubts, and more and more within the Foreign Ministry are calling this a betrayal of Genscher's legacy. There is opposition within the CDU as well. The Federal Security Council will take up the tank issue again, likely at its next session near the end of the year, which might be the point when a final decision is reached.

In the future, Merkel may have to discuss her policy decisions more openly in any case. Hans-Christian Ströbele, a member of parliament for the Green Party, has taken the case to the German Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe, with a request for information on what really took place at the Federal Security Council. Ströbele's argument is that the government is obligated to provide information to parliament. If the Constitutional Court judges agree, this would lift the veil of secrecy. It would be a good solution, one requiring the government to put its decisions on arms issues up for public debate, as it does with decisions on nuclear energy or the euro. This solution would make the Small Cabinet Room less hermetic and the Federal Security Council's work more transparent.

Still, it's unlikely the Constitutional Court will reach a decision before the next session of the Security Council. That session will once again take place in the Chancellery, once again in secret.

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