Showdown looms on German deployment decision

A vote Friday on whether to send forces to Afghanistan could spark a political crisis.

The US-led military campaign in Afghanistan may not only bring down the Taliban regime; it could also cause the government of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder to fall.

When Mr. Schröder goes to parliament on Friday with his proposal to provide up to 3,900 German soldiers for the war on terror, he is expected to directly link the controversial question to a vote of confidence in his government. Observers across the political spectrum are calling it one of Germany's most important decisions since World War II.

The chancellor's announcement this week to risk his coalition government over a foreign- policy issue is a sign of just how deeply Schröder - and his foreign minister, Joschka Fischer - have been engaging with the rest of the world. It is also a jarring reminder to ordinary Germans of their country's assertive new role on the international stage, a position that political elites have steadily reclaimed since Germany's reunification in 1990.

If Schröder's government is unable to muster a majority in parliament supporting the deployment of German soldiers, the chancellor is prepared to put his three-year old partnership between his Social Democrats and Mr. Fischer's Greens on the line.

By setting the stakes so high, Schröder is trying to force the pacifists among the Greens, as well as those in his own party, to shut up or ship out.

Although Fischer is regarded as Germany's most popular politician, the Greens are internally divided and unlikely to make it into parliament if the coalition falls apart and early elections are called. The price, then, of Germany's active engagement internationally could be the banishment of the country's Greens into political irrelevance.

"I think it's wrong that the coalition has been put into question. It's regrettable that Schröder has made this link," says Astrid Rothe, a Greens leader who opposes the deployment of German soldiers beyond Europe.

"It's the choice between the plague and cholera. If we agree, we'll be accused [by the grassroots] of going along with anything. And if we don't agree, we'll be punished with Schröder announcing the end of the coalition," says Ms. Rothe. "For me, it's significantly more important to stand up for my ideals and to be able to look at myself in the mirror than to change my position for opportunistic reasons and the sake of power."

The Greens as a political party have their roots in the environmental and peace movements of the 1970s. Since the party took on the burden of power with the Social Democrats in 1998, there has been a growing rift between grassroots traditionalists and Green government ministers, such as Fischer, who have mastered the art of realpolitik. Many disgruntled activists grumble that it took a Green foreign minister to send German fighter pilots on combat missions over Yugoslavia in 1999, and now, for the first time since World War II, to deploy German armed forces beyond Europe.

No issue in Germany seems to ignite more controversy than the question of military action. The trauma of Hitler's barbaric campaigns has left large segments of the population opposed to any armed operations; more than once, the question of German participation in NATO missions in the Balkans has caused Schröder's coalition to creak and groan.

Within a mere decade, however, Germany has come a long way, staying out of the Gulf War in 1991 but confidently striding alongside Britain and France as a US ally 10 years later.

"This much is clear: There's no going back to German isolationism and checkbook deployments - not for any party that wants to govern here," a commentator wrote in the daily Berliner Zeitung.

The view is generally shared by all the major parties in parliament, in pointed contrast to public opinion. In a recent poll, only 51 percent of respondents approved of Schröder's declaration of "unlimited solidarity" with the US, with 43 percent of the general population - and 58 percent of eastern Germans and 76 percent of Greens supporters - opposed.

"Of course we feel solidarity with the American people and the victims of the terrible attacks, but we can still remain critical," says Rothe. "I grew up in East Germany, where for years they preached unbreakable solidarity with the Soviet Union - also in their war against Afghanistan. I always thought it was wrong that there was no vocal criticism."

A handful of dissenting Greens can make or break the Schröder government.

Some Greens are calling it an attack on their conscience. Many political analysts say the chancellor had no choice. "It's tactically and strategically a smart move," says Ulrich von Alemann, a political scientist at the University of Düsseldorf.

Schröder still has the option of dropping the Greens and forming a coalition with the Free Democrats. His archrivals, the Christian Democrats, would be woefully unprepared in the event of early elections.

So far, there have been only three votes of confidence in postwar Germany.

A changed set of circumstances in distant Afghanistan could end up changing dissenters' minds at the last minute. Some observers say that with the Taliban now on the run, it may be more difficult for the Greens to reject a German military contribution. And even for the greatest idealists, the prospect of losing power - and potentially any parliamentary representation at all - is a tough reality.

"I think the Greens would come to the brink of failing [if they oppose the deployment]," says Mr. von Alemann.

"What would happen to Joschka Fischer is really tragic. He has gained a reputation in the whole world as a negotiator, but I'm afraid he would have to find a new field of activity."

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