The US has been critical of Germany for not supporting NATO in the mission in Libya. SPIEGEL spoke to German Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière about Berlin’s skepticism of getting involved in Libya and Syria, and about the future of the NATO alliance.
SPIEGEL: Minister de Maizière, during his recent speech on the future of North Atlantic Treaty Organization, outgoing US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that there are two categories of NATO partners: those who fight and those who dig wells. Which category is Germany in?
Thomas De Maizière: In Afghanistan, we’re demonstrating that the Bundeswehr (eds. note: the German military) is a fighting army whenever it has to be.
SPIEGEL: When it comes to NATO’s mission in Libya, Gates recently said that Germany, among others, wasn’t doing enough. What is your response?
De Maizière: Our decision to not participate in the military part of the Libya mission was based on carefully considered reasons. It remains correct. But that doesn’t put us in the category of mere well-diggers, as you put it.
SPIEGEL: Have you no bad conscience at all, given that your NATO partners in Libya are running out of steam and munitions?
De Maizière: The Americans did ask us for military assistance again at the most recent NATO meeting. We turned them down. But we have made things easier for the alliance by allowing German AWACS planes to participate in the mission in Afghanistan. And there’s one thing I’d like to add: When you start something, you of course always have to know how long you can keep it up.
SPIEGEL: On the eve of the first NATO airstrikes, you said on German public broadcaster ZDF: “Could the fact that we are suddenly intervening now have something to do with oil? We can’t get rid of all the dictators in the world with an international military mission.” Would you still say the same thing?
De Maizière: Yes. The “responsibility to protect” a country’s civilian population if its government violates human rights is firmly anchored in international law. But does that mean we are allowed to intervene? Or does that mean we’re actually required to? I believe that each military operation must be analyzed to determine whether its goals can be achieved with appropriate means and within an appropriate time frame as well as how one gets out at the end. Every one.
SPIEGEL: You are dodging the question. You have insinuated that Germany’s NATO allies are only intervening in Libya because of oil.
De Maizière: No, I wasn’t insinuating that at all. I strictly formulated that as a hypothetical.
SPIEGEL: But your formulation still implies it.
De Maizière: During the interview, I was pointing out that there have to be criteria for each and every decision about humanitarian intervention — even if that presents me with a number of dilemmas. If I say yes once, then I’ll have to justify why I say no the next time. Refraining from action is also a decision. One must make a decision, but one can’t expect that — no matter what the decision is — one can always emerge from this kind of matter with clean hands. I have to live with that.
SPIEGEL: You have said that you would like to “constructively examine” whether German soldiers can be deployed as part of a peacekeeping force once the war is over. Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle would like to look into this as well, but not “constructively.” How much of a difference is there between you two?
De Maizière: There’s no difference. Incidentally, I’m the type of person who always examines things constructively.
SPIEGEL: Westerwelle has also insisted that Germany will maintain its position of non-participation in the military mission in Libya. He speaks of providing “aid for a political fresh start as well as economic and social reconstruction.”
De Maizière: I agree with that statement completely. Having international peacekeepers is a hypothetical matter that will only become necessary if Libya collapses and conflicting parties must be separated. In a country that is developing in a hopefully democratic direction, that would be neither necessary nor desirable.
SPIEGEL: So both you and Westerwelle oppose getting involved militarily even after Gadhafi is overthrown?
De Maizière: No. That is not our position. I hope that things don’t come to that kind of military mission. Hopefully Libya will remain united and develop in a democratic direction.
SPIEGEL: You’ve been at the helm of Germany’s Defense Ministry for three months. During that time, you’ve had to deliver condolences to the families of four German soldiers killed in Afghanistan. What are your thoughts and feelings in such a situation?
De Maizière: It is difficult, though nothing compared to the pain that the relatives feel themselves. It makes it clear just how directly I, at the top of the chain of command, bear personal responsibility for my soldiers. Furthermore, it has once again become clear to me how difficult it is to accept when parents must bury their children rather than the other way around.
SPIEGEL: Did these young people die in vain?
De Maizière: At first glance, their deaths are senseless. There is no political, military or moral sense to having someone who is trying to bring safety and development to a country be blown up by a small minority. At the same time, though, you can’t send soldiers on dangerous missions and then call these missions off just because there are casualties. We have to accept and affirm the fact that killing and dying are part of it.
SPIEGEL: It’s been almost a decade since the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament, approved the country’s involvement in Afghanistan. In retrospect, would you say it was the right decision?
De Maizière: Yes, the decision was correct. But the justification aimed too high. We not only said that we wanted no more terror to be exported from Afghanistan; we also promised a democratic Afghanistan, a place of stability and prosperity. We’re still paying for these high expectations today.
SPIEGEL: A more modest goal may have never won approval.
De Maizière: That may be so. But if there is any lesson to be learned from Afghanistan, it would be this: You shouldn’t promise the moon to guarantee a majority. Sooner or later, it will comes back to haunt you. Perhaps we should listen to military experts more when considering new missions. They tend to be more reserved in their recommendations, at least compared to many civilians. They know best what it means.
SPIEGEL: Apropos frankness, wouldn’t it be more straightforward to tell people that there is going to be another eruption of chaos if NATO makes a swift withdrawal? And that we either have to live with that idea or stay in Afghanistan for decades to come?
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