Among allies, Germany is the odd man out in UN vote on Libya

Germany sided with Russia and China as it abstained from the UN Security Council vote to take "all necessary measures" to protect civilians in Libya. Berlin took the decision that would be most popular at home. Politicians do such things. But Germany's allies certainly notice.

Credit: Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty Images/Newscom
German Chancellor Angela Merkel addresses a press conference on March 19 in Berlin. Ms. Merkel defended her country's decision to abstain in a UN Security Council vote authorizing a no-fly zone over Libya, saying Germany did not want to participate in a war in North Africa.

No one was surprised that Russia and China abstained from the United Nations Security Council vote for a no-fly zone in Libya. But Germany?

Actually, Berlin had been signaling for days that it would not go along, but still. Germany is one of America's closest allies. In this vote, Europe's biggest democracy stood alongside authoritarians and developing nations, not with its freedom-loving partners, Britain, France, and the US.

It had plenty of international cover to vote "yes." The Arab League supported the UN resolution, which is meant to avert a bloodbath in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi. The European Union also endorsed the resolution.

The German exception was all the more remarkable because of this: Berlin lobbied hard for its two-year seat on the Security Council, which began Jan. 1. It gave the impression that it would be ueber responsible, that this stint was a dry run in a bid for a permanent seat.

"Germany will be a reliable, responsible and engaged partner," said Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, about his country's seat on the Security Council. "We will do our part to ensure that the world continues to see the Council as the central body for peace and security in the world."

Muammar Qaddafi has praised Germany for its position. What an embarrassment for a country that sustained one of the colonel's terrorist bombings (his agents blew up the La Belle nightclub in West Berlin in 1986).

So why did Germany abstain? There are several official reasons. It is in the middle of restructuring its defense forces. Adding another mission outside of Afghanistan, where it has the third largest troop presence after the Americans and the British, would stretch it too far.

Mr. Westerwelle has also warned against the "slippery slope" of another war in a Muslim country with perhaps unintended consequences. Germany will not participate in the UN mission, although it is considering how it can help more with tasks in Afghanistan, such as radar flights, to free up personnel or equipment for Libya.

The unofficial reason for abstaining is because this is the popular position to take in a year chock full of important German state elections, including one on Sunday. This vote is entirely consistent with populist positions taken by Chancellor Angela Merkel – no bailout for deadbeat, debt-ridden European countries, a rethinking of nuclear power, and no support for military action, even to stop a bloodbath.

This all sounds like pretty high-and-mighty criticism, so let's just take the German position for a minute, because nothing is ever as black and white as it looks.

Pacifism still runs deep in Germans who are sensitive to their tragic history. Slowly, though, Germany has taken on greater security roles in the world. Berlin is still keeping German troops in Afghanistan, despite a strong public desire to get them out. It has deployed Germans as UN or NATO peacekeepers to the Balkans, Africa, and Lebanon.

And lobbing criticisms from America is like throwing stones at a glass Bauhaus. Let's not forget that members of Congress are divided on the no-fly issue. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned against it for the exact same reasons that the Germans brought up. Two-thirds of Americans say the US has no responsibility to act in Libya. The Obama administration was hardly decisive about Libya, allowing France and other countries to take the lead.

Once Washington pivoted, however, Berlin should have, too. Ms. Merkel said today that "we fully endorse the aims of the resolution. Our attitude can't be mixed up with neutrality." But those words don't change the fact that in a crucial vote, Germany sided with Russia and China, and not with her friends.

Her friends have surely noticed. Indeed, a US government official told me today that in NATO, Germany is beginning to resemble the France of yesteryear: "They have become the land of 'no.' "

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