BONN — GERMAN soldiers to the front?
This is a soul-searching question Germans have been wrestling with since the Gulf war, when they provided support but sent no troops to the desert.
It came up again in regard to the Yugoslav war and has resurfaced in connection with Somalia. Germany wants to send 1,500 troops to help the humanitarian effort in Somalia, but only after fighting has stopped.
Restrictions on German troop deployment will receive special attention this week when UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali talks with German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and other high-ranking politicians here today and tomorrow. It will also be the subject of a Bundestag (National Assembly) debate Thursday, and the focus of a meeting between parties in the coalition government and the opposition, probably Wednesday.
The Germans are glaringly absent from combat portions of UN missions, and Mr. Boutros-Ghali has often said Bonn should live up to its responsibility and fully participate in UN missions.
But the Germans have long interpreted their Constitution as restricting Bundeswehr (Army) deployment outside the NATO area.
The government, which seeks to reverse this tradition through a constitutional change, is in a tough position. To alter the Constitution it needs opposition Social Democrat support. But neither the opposition nor the average German favors combat deployment outside NATO - even under UN blessing.
According to a Jan. 7 poll in Stern magazine, only 15 percent of Germans favor Bundeswehr participation in UN-combat missions, although 30 percent favor a German role among non-combat UN peacekeepers. Still, 44 percent remain true to the post-World War II doctrine passed on by parents and teachers: German troops are for defense only.
According to a Foreign Office spokesman, altering public opinion on "out-of-area" troop deployment "is much more difficult than we thought." People have the impression that politicians are "chucking" the long-held German mentality of "never again," he says.
The Bonn government has been promising its allies out-of-area deployment since the end of the Gulf war, but the longer it takes, the more "ridiculous" Germany appears in the foreign community, the spokesman says. "No one believes us."
But what to do? Political compromise is unlikely. Avoiding a big shock
Kohl's Christian Democrats say the Constitution already allows out-of-area deployment, as long as it is part of a multinational, collective security arrangement. But a sudden reinterpretation of the Constitution would be too great a shock for most Germans, so the Christian Democrats are willing to go along with their junior coalition partners, the Free Democrats, who seek a constitutional change.
But the Constitution cannot be changed without the opposition Social Democrats, and the Kohl government finds the opposition's agreement to keep German soldiers as UN peacekeepers too restrictive. Kohl wants German troops to be able to be "peacemakers" (involving combat) as well - though the coalition parties themselves cannot agree on whether an out-of-area deployment must be UN sanctioned.
"I don't see any chance for compromise," says a Social Democrat at the Bundestag. His party will not cross the line to peacemaking, he says.
That has left the Kohl government one alternative: a step-by-step test of constitutional limits.
Making sure to keep the Bundeswehr out of obvious combat situations, Bonn has sent troops to help Kurds in northern Iraq, minesweepers to clear waters in the Gulf, helicopters to transfer UN observers in Iraq, Bundeswehr medics to Cambodia, and a destroyer and aircraft to the Adriatic to monitor the Yugoslav trade embargo. During his visit this week, Boutros-Ghali is expected to accept Germany's offer to assist in the rebuilding of Somalia's police force.
The government's tiptoeing toward a broader interpretation of the Constitution has not gone unnoticed by the Social Democrats. They have filed a complaint with the Constitutional Court over the Adriatic deployment and a decision is expected in March. They also threaten to appeal again if, and when, 1,500 troops are deployed in Somalia. Kohl may look to courts
One government official hints that Kohl's strategy now is to look to the Constitutional Court to solve the problem for him.
But seeking to avoid a political role, the Court could very well hand down narrow rulings. An adviser to Kohl denies a strategy of relying on the court.
"We're not double playing - on the one hand talking and on the other hand acting to provoke," he says. "It's the intention of the government to try and reach a basis among the parties.... We need a discussion in this country," he says. He will see plenty of that this week.