Germany plays catch-up after being on sidelines of NATO's Libya campaign

Germany's government now appears eager to make loans, unfreeze Libyan assets, and commit itself to aid for Libya, but a growing list of critics is saying it's all too little, too late.

Markus Schreiber/AP
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle briefs the media about the situation in Libya at the foreign ministry in Berlin, Tuesday, Aug. 23.

Having decided to stand on the sidelines for NATO's Libya campaign – amid strong criticism – Berlin is now sprinting to catch up with history as Tripoli floods with rebels and a victory seems near.

Germany voted in March against a United Nations no-fly zone, withdrew naval resupply vessels in the Mediterranean Sea, and took an occasional we-told-you-so attitude as the Libyan operation dragged on.

The German decision not to participate as Benghazi was on the verge of being routed, left Europe, the US, and NATO without its biggest ally. It was described as a surprise for a country historically careful not to isolate itself with allies.

Yet Europe’s biggest nation now appears eager to make loans, unfreeze Libyan assets, and commit itself to aid, partly as a recompense for what is being decried in Germany as a major policy blunder.

Yet whether Germany’s newfound attitude is enough to quell bitter feelings at a time when it is criticized for a lack of ardor for European unity is unclear.

“Too little, too late,” says Ulrike Guérot of the European Council of Foreign Relations in Berlin. “It’s a statement that we were out, but now we want to be in.”

Even former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who presided over German unification in the 1990s, weighed in today with a strikingly critical assessment of a German drift from its former “dependable” role.

“Germany’s hasn’t been a reliable power for several years – neither domestically nor abroad,” Mr. Kohl told the prestigious journal Internationale Politik, “I have to ask myself, where does Germany actually stand today and where does it want to go?”

The remarks were a sizable rebuke to Chancellor Angela Merkel, described this week by Forbes as the world’s most powerful woman.

German misstep?

The March 11 UN Security Council vote on Libya was an 11th-hour initiative by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose moves are considered by the studious Ms. Merkel to be too often erratic and cavalier.

In New York, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle argued a classic German pacifist line, that the no-fly zone was a bad idea, messy, an over-step with unforeseen consequences that would harm civilians.

Still, many in the German foreign policy establishment rebelled: "The decision is a serious mistake of historic dimensions, with inevitable repercussions," said former German Defense Minister Volker Rühe.

(Mr. Westerwelle is now under attack for characterizing German policy as significant in Libya’s success: "From the outset, Germany supported a political process: international isolation of and targeted sanctions against the Libyan regime. And this tactic was quite visibly effective," he told reporters.)

German looks east

Merkel’s UN abstention was popular in German polls. And as the Libya NATO operation proved indecisive and messy, with rebels in pickup trucks taking towns and then retreating, and with talk of quagmire, some German officials were telling French colleagues, “We told you so.”

German officials have said at certain points there was subdued gloating in their ranks over bad news out of Libya.

The abstention is in keeping with a new German redefining of its role, analysts say. Berlin has been looking east, less willing to duck its head and go-along, proud of its precision machinery export industry, bending others to enforce discipline on debtor Euro nations, and looking to partner with BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia, China, and India. In fact, Germany’s UN abstention in fact left it standing with the BRICs, who also abstained on Libya.

Playing catch up

Ahead of an Istanbul conference today of 29 nations aimed at assisting Libya, Westerwelle said that, “Libya needs reconstruction to provide lasting stability for the country.”

Earlier this week, a first loan of $140 million was granted to the Libya National Transitional Council (TNC), and the government said it would speed up the release to the TNC of money sitting in Muammar Qaddafi's frozen accounts at German banks. German Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere declared he was willing to consider a significant role for the German Army, the Bundeswehr, in post-conflict Libya – though this is not yet agreed policy.

Berlin has also made recent efforts to support the Libyan rebels. In late May, Germany opened a liaison office in Benghazi and, in June, Westerwelle visited Benghazi and recognized the TNC. On June 28, the defense ministry agreed to help with parts and ammunition for the mission.

Two days later, Merkel met Mahmoud Jibril of the TNC who thanked her for providing the rebellion with $15 million. On July 24, Germany offered the rebels $144 million in loans and this month Germany said 11 of its soldiers were assisting rebels.

“Germany is more comfortable with the use of power today,” says Tomas Valasek of the Center for European Reform in London. “But the Libya issue came when Germans felt the world was asking too much of them. Now they will feel compelled to compensate for the decision to abstain in the first place.”

--- Correspondent Michael Steininger contributed reporting from Berlin.

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