Monday, 21 March 2011 13:40

Germany’s Case for Non-Intervention

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This post is a reply to Matt (Sixth Sense Editor)'s post yesteday  'Libya, Germany, and the tyranny of definition' that can be found here.

Discussing a no-fly zone over Libya is a particularly hard thing to do. It is easy to argue in both directions and neither side is clearly convincing. This dilemma led to disagreement among Western states on whether or not to intervene in Libya. As Matt points out in his thought-provoking blog post, the United Kingdom and France were clearly in favour of the mission, whereas Germany abstained from the vote. I think however that Germany had palpably good reasons to abstain (or at least not to participate in such military mission) and that it was Germany's communication that could be described as their key flaw.

On Civil War

First, Matt's definition of Libya as a civil war: I think it does not make a substantial difference if we are talking about a civil war or not...

As Matt rightly outlines, what happened was not a genocide; which is usually seen as the basis for a responsibility to protect. But this is a minor point that loses all significance if such operation could be successful (which I will discuss below). What remains, however, is the question of why we are actually intervening. As Joshua Foust and others convincingly outline, it cannot simply be human rights violations that are our motivation. Cruel as it sounds, this would pave the way for intervention in North Korea, in Yemen, where protesters have called for international intervention after dozens were killed (in fact shot by snipers – rather similar to the Libyan case) over the past days, not to mention the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Joshua Foust rightly argues that "Slippery slopes never make valid arguments" and it is very hard to understand how Qatar is participating in Libya's mission to support the protesters, while it fights them in Bahrain. The hypocrisy that arises from this development, and from the media's attention, is consequently hard to grasp.

Joshua Foust rightly argues that "Slippery slopes never make valid arguments"

My second problem with such a mission is that it is hard to imagine how it could be successful – particularly given that it is a mission to protect civilians. Andrew Exum nicely framed this, stating "Someone please tell me how this ends." What we are seeing right now is an attack on air defence and Gaddafi's ground troops that are near the embattled city of Bengazi. Thus, what we are in fact seeing is the hope to prevent further violence against civilians and the hope that Gaddafi steps down (by the way, not part of the mission!) rather than a strategy. Hence, my third point, is the question of what should happen after initial airstrikes? 

Indeed, Matt outlines that it is very hard to imagine what would happen if Gaddafi was removed. As the UN mission only foresees a bombing and no-fly zone campaign, a political strategy for anything that happens after these strikes is missing. How can those nations involved – at the time of writing again only Western nations by the way – end its mission in Libya if the outcome is a civil war? What if the rebel movement then starts killing civilians who were pro Gaddafi? 

A Return to domestic reasons

Fourthly, the domestic reasons. I tend to agree with Matt that domestic reasons are among the key drivers of this intervention. As laid out above, the coverage of Libya created a situation in which neither Sarkozy nor Cameron could be seen as not acting. 

In Germany however, media attention has been more focused on Japan and the nuclear reactors, which not only caused Germans to buy iodine pills in large quantities but also to switch off seven nuclear reactors. Political pressure on the Libyan issue was therefore much lower, and in fact a poll concluded that 70% reject German involvement in Libya (even though 62% support the bombing). Still, pressure in favour mounted after the Security Council decision, in which Germany is currently a non-permanent member. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, a leading conservative German newspaper, argued that this was "diplomatic damage of the greatest extent, including for [Germany's Foreign Minister] Westerwelle personally" as Germany now stands isolated from other Western states. 

Unlike when Germany faced a similar situation over the Iraq war in 2003, it can now only count China and Russia amongst its supporters. Matt's point about the difficulty of the constitution, which in fact limits the use of the military to cases of self defence, is not completely correct, as this also includes cases of collective self-defence after 9/11, and was also extended to the UN-mandated missions in a 1994 ruling by the German constitutional court. The debate about the lawfulness of such action therefore is of minor importance here. 

The basic mistake that Germany made then was a failure of communication.

A failure of communcation

The basic mistake that Germany made then was a failure of communication. Whilst the decision, as outlined above, can be seen as reasonable, the communication – obviously including the diplomatic communication – failed miserably. Only after being pushed in the German Bundestag and by the media, did Merkel react to all kinds of allegations. By that time, the government was chased by international media and public perception rather than being able to communicate its decision clearly. 

Thus, rather than the "paralysis over using its army", as Matt assumed, the cautious and temporising attitude of Madame Non collided once again with the we-have-to-do-something mentality of Nicolas Sarkozy. Unlike Sarkozy's clear steps ahead, however, Merkel's dithering drove her into a corner and the failure, inability or unwillingness to communicate her reasons was the key flaw. Despite a basically reasonable decision to not interfere, therefore, Germany lost at the communication front and therefore now appears to be isolated. 

History has shown that non-interference can be a catastrophic mistake. The no-fly zones over Iraq and Bosnia, however, have also shown that interference without a proper strategy can be equally damaging.

Last modified on Tuesday, 29 March 2011 16:39
Janosch Jerman

Janosch Jerman, 23, from the Ruhr area of Germany, will be writing from London where he studies International Relations. He is often complimented for reading 'all the news.' His shrewd analysis will give you a dynamic European perspective on international politics.

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