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EUROPE : Troop Role in Somalia Has Germans Edgy


BERLIN — For the first time since World War II, Germans are waving goodby to soldiers heading for a war zone, and as the 1,700 Bundeswehr soldiers deploy as U.N. peacekeepers in Somalia, one fact is clear: Germany is not ready for what is effectively its first substantive step toward a larger global role.

What outsiders see as little more than the routine addition of one more nation to the expanding U.N. peacekeeping effort, for Germany is nothing less than a national trauma.

The consequences of this mood are considerable.

If things should go wrong for German forces in their first deployment outside of Europe in nearly half a century, the reaction is certain to be sharp and politically explosive. As such, it would undoubtedly set back Chancellor Helmut Kohl's efforts to coax his wary nation into a broader international role in a post-Cold War world.

"The country is completely unprepared," said Horst Teltschik, former chief foreign policy adviser to Kohl and now a board member of the German auto company BMW.

He and other observers believe the fault lies, at least in part, with a prolonged national debate that focused mainly on the legalities of the deployment; it left the nation uncertain about the purpose of the action. "Our politicians, including the foreign minister, the chancellor . . . haven't explained to people what the real goals are," Teltschik added.

Certainly the deployment occurs in the wake of an extraordinary political debate that divided not just the Parliament and the general public but split the Cabinet to such an extent that it was incapable of making a decision. Eventually, it was the Federal Constitutional Court that approved the action. It did so on the dubious legal argument that Germany's withdrawal of its peacekeeping commitment would result in unacceptable foreign policy damage.

All this, however, did little to prepare two postwar generations of Germans east and west, raised to believe that war--any war--is an inherent evil to be avoided at all costs. This conviction, plus the fact that no German soldier has been shot at in earnest for nearly half a century, has left the country nervous and unsure as events continue to unfold.

As the security situation in Somalia has gradually deteriorated, so has public support here for Bundeswehr participation. A poll released Monday by the opinion research group FORSA showed that nearly two-thirds of those questioned believed the deployment should be halted. Many believe support could plummet to zero with the first German casualty.

Opposition Social Democrats, who argued against the deployment at the Constitutional Court, but then reluctantly backed a parliamentary compromise approving it for "peaceful humanitarian action," now claim the new conditions in Somalia violate the compromise.

In recent days, even senior members of Kohl's own Christian Democrats have had second thoughts. "Unless we are quickly able to achieve a degree of clarity about the U.N. mandate (in Somalia), then I see a new situation that could make it necessary to withdraw the German soldiers," Karl Lamers, parliamentary spokesman on foreign affairs for Kohl's party, told a German newspaper.

Meanwhile, commanders of the German advance party in Mogadishu complained that too much of their soldiers' time was being spent telephoning home to reassure anxious relatives of their safety. The government, painfully aware of the potential foreign policy disaster that a troop withdrawal would mean, has attempted to play down the dangers.

Aside from acute embarrassment, any policy reversal now would probably jeopardize moves to give Germany a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council.

In a tactic that could backfire badly, only as deployment began did Kohl and Defense Minister Volker Ruehe admit that risks do exist.

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