German focus on nation-building and resistance to global leadership role mold approach to Gulf crisis

IT would never be said in Bonn publicly, but the allied intervention in the Gulf has come at a bad time. Reunification is a major preoccupation for the Germans. It amounts to no less than the building of this country's future - of its economy as well as its national identity (which, 46 years after the war, is still undefined).

This immediate concern, combined with a pacifist postwar mentality here, kept the Gulf crisis on the periphery of German public and political consciousness.

In December, for instance, when the Gulf crisis was the lead story in American newspapers, the German news media focused on newly reelected Chancellor Helmut Kohl's coalition talks and his task of forming a Cabinet and a policy that would equalize the standard of living in both parts of the country.

On Jan. 17, when Germans awoke to hear that a United States-led coalition was at war with Iraq, it was also Mr. Kohl's swearing-in day before the Bundestag (parliament). It would have been a big moment in German politics were there not a war on.

Since that day, the war has been the premier topic in Bonn, but reunification problems - especially those revolving around costs - are a constant concern. Governors of the five new German states are demanding more funds from Bonn. Kohl has admitted that higher taxes are inevitable. And last week, the Bundesbank raised interest rates against the wishes of the Group of Seven industrialized countries - an example of German independence, especially when it has to do with the country's financial stability.

A pervasive postwar mentality here is another explanation for German uncertainty vis-`a-vis the Gulf.

After being at the center of two world wars in this century, it's not surprising that Germans fear war, resist the idea of Germany as a strong leader on the world stage, and question anything that might upset their security and well being. It's a hands-off approach, unless the need is to work toward something that's in Germany's immediate interest, such as NATO protection during the cold-war years, or European union, to name two examples.

This postwar mentality causes Germans to point to constitutional restrictions as the reason they have no troops in the Gulf, even though many constitutional scholars aren't at all sure this interpretation is correct.

This mentality leads the German left to argue that an Iraqi attack on Turkey would not really be an attack on NATO (and thus mean German involvement), because Turkey would have ``provoked'' such an attack by allowing American bombers to stage raids from Turkish soil. The Social Democrats would like to see the return of German jets and support personnel from Turkey, where they have been sent at Turkey's request.

This mentality is also reflected in national polls that show about 80 percent of Germans favoring military intervention in the Gulf, but not German military intervention (75 percent).

In fits and starts, the Germans are beginning to break away from this perspective, although it has taken prodding from allies and shame over its role in Iraq's poison-gas factories to do it.

Last week was Kohl took some decisive steps. He announced $5.5 billion more for the US war chest; $540 million for Britain's; and military equipment and medical help for Israel. Bonn is also pledging to close the loopholes in its export control laws, but the public - as well as outsiders - wonders why previous warnings, scandals, and law-tightening seem to have been to no avail.

``There can be no safe little corner in world politics for us Germans,'' Kohl told parliamentarians last week. It remains to be seen whether he speaks for the nation or not.

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