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Why They Say Nein to War

September 06, 2002

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is causing heartburn at the White House with declarations that his country is "not available for adventures" in Iraq. But Schroeder, who is in the middle of a fiercely contested election campaign, receives roars of approval from crowds whenever he declares that Germany will not participate in or help pay for a war. Though there is an element of election-campaign opportunism in Schroeder's insistence that a war would be a huge blunder, his statements reflect widespread fears among Europeans.

Schroeder, though he comes from the left wing of the Social Democratic Party, is no anti-American firebrand. Over the decades, he has shed his doctrinaire leftism to become a pragmatist standing by the U.S. against terrorism and for democracy. Germany has stepped up its surveillance and penetration of Islamic groups inside the country, and some 10,000 German troops are stationed in the Balkans, Afghanistan and the Middle East. Indeed, Schroeder was unflinching on Afghanistan, facing down critics in his own party and its coalition partner, the Greens, to support deployment in that country.

Schroeder's arguments against a war are grounded not in dislike of the United States but in realistic apprehensions. He notes that the Bush administration has presented no compelling evidence that the threat posed by Iraq justifies a full-scale war; that an assault could create a surge of hatred in the Arab street that might allow Islamic militants to topple moderate governments friendly to the U.S; and that the economic consequences of war, particularly for oil supplies, could be catastrophic.

Schroeder argues that the goal of the U.S. and its allies shouldn't be war but rather permitting weapons inspectors to aggressively return to Iraq.

The Nazi years created a deep and permanent wariness in Germany about the consequences of going to war. Schroeder never met his father, who died serving in the army. During the Cold War, West Germany, like Japan, drew the lesson that it should avoid great-power politics and concentrate on economics. In Germany, the memory of World War II and the economic and moral destruction of the country also long tainted the idea of any military action apart from defense.

However, since unification in 1990, American administrations have encouraged Germany to shed its status as economic giant/political dwarf. Schroeder, by taking the lead in Europe against joining a U.S. war against Iraq, is doing just that.

German leadership in Europe does not have to be seen just as opposition to the United States. Schroeder is right to fear that an attack on Saddam Hussein would jeopardize the war on terrorism by tearing apart the NATO alliance. Instead of becoming angry at Schroeder, the Bush administration should try harder to hear his words of caution.

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