West German opposition party tries to move toward center

The moderate wing of the opposition Social Democratic Party (SPD) is finally beginning to fight back in an effort to wrest control of the party's defense policy from its left wing. It is helped mightily by the approach of the 1987 general election and the pressure this puts on the SPD to appeal to the mass of voters by moving toward the center.

This active revolt by the SPD's centrist wing for the first time in two years is far more significant than the sharp but routine attacks by conservatives on the controversial ``von B"ulow paper'' in Parliament Wednesday.

Indeed, an angry Andreas von B"ulow, chairman of the SPD's Commission on Security Policy, is accusing moderates within his own party of leaking his working paper to undermine its appeal within the party.

Under the title of a ``security partnership'' between East and West, the 23-page paper envisages the withdrawal of United States and Soviet troops from Central Europe by the year 2000 and espouses only a minimal defense of West Germany, including:

A pledge by both East and West of no first use of nuclear and chemical weapons, along with unilateral withdrawal of US Pershing II Euromissiles and a negotiated reduction in Soviet SS-20 Euromissiles;

Deep cuts in today's 495,000-strong West German armed forces, to accommodate the shortage of draft-age men in the 1990s;

A reduction of present conscript terms of 15 months (18 months under planned legislation) to only seven or eight months;

A drastic shift away from tanks to antitank defenses; and

A shift to a militia strategy of using reservists in small units against any occupier, along the lines of Swedish and Swiss defense concepts.

The underlying premise of the paper is that -- contrary to NATO and West German Defense Ministry assessments -- NATO conventional forces are not inferior to Soviet-Warsaw Pact conventional forces, and that if threatening elements of NATO forces are removed, the Soviet Union will no longer see any need to keep its own army in Eastern Europe.

Defense Minister Manfred W"orner told the Bundestag Wednesday that Mr. von B"ulow's ideas would lead to a breakup of the NATO alliance, and another Defense Ministry spokesman has stated that they would increase the risk of war. In more scorching language outside Parliament conservative politicians have scored von B"ulow's concept as an anti-American ``betrayal.''

Nine of the 21 members of the SPD's security commission have reportedly endorsed the paper. Other Social Democrats have vehemently rejected the whole notion. The likely future SPD chancellor candidate, North Rhine-Westphalia Premier Johannes Rau -- himself a centrist who has managed to say virtually nothing on defense policy -- has been spared comment at this point. He is in Moscow for a get-acquianted talk with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Whatever the origin of the original leak, it's no secret that SPD moderates are glad that the forum for debate of the von B"ulow paper is now the glaringly public Bundestag, the lower house of Parliament, rather than the party hothouse. SPD MPs are always much more moderate, and SPD bureaucrats much more leftist. And it's the bureaucrats who have been running the party show ever since the Cologne convention of 1983 overwhelmingly rejected SPD ex-chancellor Helmut Schmidt's centrist policies, along with NATO Euromissile deployment. Such an ideological shift tends to occur whenever the party is in opposition and no longer has the practical restraints of government responsibility.

Basically, von B"ulow's proposals continue the line this former research minister and Defense Ministry state secretary has taken ever since the antinuclear Greens burst onto the political scene at the height of the Euromissile debate in 1982-83.

After an ambiguous SPD campaign against new Euromissiles in 1983 failed to impress West German voters -- and after the novelty of the Greens wore off both for voters and for Willy Brandt -- most leading Social Democrats discreetly downplayed security policy altogether and shifted their focus to unemployment or other topics.

This left a vacuum on SPD security policy -- a vacuum that was filled by von B"ulow's explorations of a radical alternative defense policy within the party, and by SPD moderates' disavowals of his explorations at the never-ending semiprivate conferences discussing security policy.

Now, finally, those SPD centrists are going public.

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