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

Berlin has said nothing about the reasons behind its decision to reverse decades of carefully considered foreign policy and export up to 270 modern tanks to Saudi Arabia. The sale has baffled many in Germany and abroad given the country's longstanding tradition of not selling arms to crisis regions. It may be only the beginning.

The walls of the Small Cabinet Room in the German Chancellery are paneled in reddish beech wood and a turquoise carpet covers the floor. Eight-centimeter (three-inch) thick bulletproof glass protects the chancellor from assassination attempts. There's something faceless about the room. It breathes discretion, as if it were made to keep secrets.

That's precisely how this room must have appeared on June 27, 2011. That Monday, Angela Merkel sat with a stack of documents in front of her at the nine-meter (30-foot) oval beech wood table, surrounded by 16 black, upholstered leather chairs. A square, gilt clock in the middle of the table served as a reminder that the chancellor's time is always in short supply.

One woman and 14 men were with Merkel at the table, gathered for a session of the Federal Security Council. In the next hour and a half, they would reach an historic decision, approving the delivery of more than 200 of Germany's most modern tank, the "Leopard" 2A7+ model, to Saudi Arabia. This would be the first time Germany supplied heavy arms to an Arab government that has declared its intentions to fight its opponents "with an iron fist," a country that deployed tanks against demonstrators in a neighboring country and ranks 160th on the Economist's Democracy Index, just a few spots above North Korea, which holds the very bottom spot.

The decision Merkel and her key ministers reached here in the Small Cabinet Room broke a German taboo, and broke with the decisions of previous governments in Berlin not to supply heavy arms equipment to Saudi Arabia as a matter of principle. It also marked a paradigm shift in German foreign policy.

No Weapons of War for Crisis Regions

Up to that point, the country had followed the guidelines championed by no less than long-serving Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher of the Free Democratic Party (FDP): Weapons of war could not be exported to crisis regions, the prevailing thinking dictated. That was the German position and all of Merkel's predecessors -- from Helmut Schmidt to Helmut Kohl to Gerhard Schröder -- stuck to this tenet regardless of political affiliation.

But Merkel broke with the established policy and overturned Genscher's principle. Despite some misgivings, she determined it to be acceptable to deliver weapons wherever doing so best serves Germany's geopolitical and economic interests.

This is Germany's new arms policy, and it means tank export deals can now play a role in determining the country's power politics. It is also a decision that places foreign policy interests above human rights in a country where men can drive tanks, but women aren't even allowed to drive cars.

The breaking of the taboo on exporting weapons of war took place behind the closed doors of the Small Cabinet Room and, to this day, the government has tried to keep it a secret. When SPIEGEL first reported  on the decision in early July, Merkel wanted to know how word of the internal matter got out.

Dismay From all Parties

The debate that broke out after the deal came to light was an unusually passionate one, with the opposition condemning the deal and many conservatives reacting with dismay as well. Former Defense Minister Volker Rühe of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Merkel's conservative party, demanded that "this arms deal must be stopped." Horst Teltschik, foreign policy advisor under Chancellor Kohl, warned that the entire region was instable. "I consider the idea of delivering German tanks in such a situation to be absolutely wrong," he said, adding that he believed "that in the current political situation, Helmut Kohl would certainly have rejected such a decision." Similar comments came from Ruprecht Polenz, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Bundestag, Germany's parliament, and from Erika Steinbach, the CDU's human rights spokesperson in the legislative chamber.

The chancellor herself remained silent on the issue. In typical fashion, her spokesman, Steffen Seibert, pointed out that everything discussed by the Federal Security Council is confidential, even the meeting agenda.

Perhaps there are good reasons for exporting German military equipment to Saudi Arabia -- but the public still hasn't been informed of them, even months after the decision leaked. One thing is certain, though: There are good reasons not to endorse the deal. In a truly democratic process, arguments on both sides would be weighed in order to then pursue the best path. The public has a right to know what security policy guidelines the government is following and which countries are receiving deliveries of German weapons. How did the decision come about? Who voted for it and who against? And on what grounds does the government justify its policy change?

Reconstructing the decision reached on June 27 is a journey to the heart of the German government. Anyone caught discussing a Federal Security Council meeting risks up to five years' imprisonment. Thus, this reconstruction is based primarily on confidential conversations and the content of restricted documents.

The paradigm shift occurred in three phases.

The first phase began in the second half of 2010. This was a time of "still"s, when Guido Westerwelle was still Germany's vice chancellor and Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg was still defense minister. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali still ruled in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and the Middle East still seemed as stable as ever. From Berlin's perspective, the time seemed ripe to fulfill a wish on the part of Riyadh's aged monarch, King Abdullah, 85. And so Frank Haun requested appointments with several German ministers.

An Attractive Market for a German Arms Firm

As chairman of the board at Krauss-Maffei Wegmann, a Munich-based arms manufacturer with 3,500 employees, Haun was looking to tap new markets. Krauss-Maffei Wegmann had been hit hard by the Greek crisis as well as by budget cuts at the Bundeswehr, Germany's armed forces. The number of orders the company received was dropping and annual sales looked likely to slip beneath the billion-euro threshold by the end of the year. Haun also liked to complain about the "enormous competitive disadvantages" his company faced, because "in no other country in the world" did the defense industry face "more severe export limitations" than in Germany. Given all these factors, Saudi Arabia fit quite nicely as a new market for the Leopard tank.

The Leopard 2, a powerful modern battle tank, is the company's crown jewel. Its latest version weighs in at 67.5 metric tons (74.4 US tons) and is 10.97 meters (35.99 feet) in length, equipped with a 120-millimeter smoothbore cannon capable of firing four kilometers (2.5 miles). The Leopard 2 can ford water two meters deep and is a shining example of German military technology.

Haun embarked on a very special type of road show. He addressed the Defense Ministry, the Chancellery and the Foreign Ministry, relaying the considerable interest from Riyadh. This would be an enormously beneficial deal for the German defense industry and especially for Krauss-Maffei Wegmann, encompassing not only the tanks themselves, but also maintenance, training and replacement parts. Signals from Riyadh indicated Saudi Arabia was interested in buying 200 tanks, although it could also be as many as 270. In total, the deal was worth up to €5 billion ($6.9 billion).

At the Foreign Ministry, Haun met with Foreign Minister Westerwelle (FDP). Within the German government, diplomats traditionally belong to the camp more critical of the defense industry, as do those at the Development Ministry. The Economics, Interior and Defense ministries generally comprise the other camp. If Haun managed to get the Foreign Ministry on his side, it would be a huge step toward being able to export the tanks.

The plan found both supporters and detractors among the diplomats at the Foreign Ministry. The foreign minister spoke with the chancellor about Haun's request, and both Merkel and Westerwelle agreed not to block the deal, but with one caveat: No German government sells heavy-duty "made in Germany" military equipment to an Arab country that stands in opposition to Israel's security interests. This is one of the key principles of German defense policy.

Helmut Kohl stopped the export of Leopard tanks to Saudi Arabia in 1983, "not least due to the interests of our close partner Israel," former advisor Teltschik recalls. In 1991, Kohl did allow the delivery of 36 German "Fuchs" personnel carriers to Riyadh, but these were meant to protect Saudi forces against possible poison gas attacks from Iraq. Merkel also authorized a factory there to manufacture German G36 assault rifles, categorized as light weaponry, under license. But tanks, without approval from Israel? It would never fly.

Tanks Well Suited for Putting Down Revolutions

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.

A Tectonic Shift

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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