Joschka Fischer on Germany's 'No' to the Iraq War

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Joschka Fischer on Germany's 'No' to the Iraq War

Der Spiegel

February 17, 2011


In the second instalment of his memoirs, former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer describes his misgivings over Gerhard Schröder's absolute rejection of an invasion of Iraq, his fears that France might not oppose the move and how developments in the run-up to the war badly damaged his relationship with the chancellor.

Joschka Fischer served as Germany's foreign minister for seven years. He justified Germany's participation in the war in Kosovo and in Afghanistan, but he also rejected his country's involvement in the US adventure in Iraq. The second volume of his memoirs, which is released in German this week, focuses on the bitter conflict between the German government and the Bush administration as well as the former foreign minister's own serious arguments with then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder. Fischer served as deputy chancellor and foreign minister from 1998-2005 in a coalition government in which the Green Party was the junior partner to Schröder's center-left Social Democrats. The period marked the first time the Green Party formed part of a federal government in Germany. The following excerpt is from Fischer's new book, "I Am Not Convinced. The Iraq War and the Red-Green Years."

Every administration enters a difficult phase when it is reelected for the first time, when something completely new begins, unnoticed, as the status quo continues. This is why it seems easier for an administration to pull off a successful second term than it really is. The key players, with their accumulated experience, are likely to be over confident, and believe that everything can continue as before. But appearances are deceiving.

In the autumn of 1998, we were filled with inner joy and excitement when President Roman Herzog handed us our letters of appointment as federal cabinet ministers. Four years later, however, everything that had been unusual or even magical had given way to the daily routine of governing. This unrecognized turning point following a re-election is often the root cause of the coming decline and even failure of a government. From that point on, it lacks the central motif of re-election, namely validation.

Chancellors undoubtedly want to be re-elected for a third and a fourth term, but the central motif of action has changed decisively, because some kind of imperative is missing. And chancellors secretly know that eventually they will be voted out of office, unless they resign first, because all power in a democracy is bestowed for only a limited time.

On Sept. 25, 2002, only three days after the election to the national parliament, the Bundestag, the coalition negotiations began at Willy Brandt House, the headquarters of Gerhard Schröder's Social Democratic Party (SPD). This haste would prove to be a huge mistake, because we were all exhausted and had reached the limits of our capacity as a result of the numerous crises, the rigors of day-to-day governing and the extremely long election campaign.

The US Moves Closer to War
In addition, because the location of Willy Brandt House is not far from Berlin's government quarter, the numerous media representatives were only too pleased to take advantage of the opportunity to actively participate in the negotiations. The press was briefed every day, officially by the party leaders and unofficially through the chatter of interested participants in the coalition negotiations. Our media amplifier, in other words, was in place -- but the booming message it broadcast throughout the country sent many voters into a state of shock and caused the chancellor's credibility in opinion polls to melt like snow on a hot summer's day. The crash was brutal.

In foreign policy, our goal now was to repair our relationship with the United States as much as possible (or, to be more precise, the relationship between the chancellor and the president), as well as to continue to devote all our resources to avoiding a war with Iraq. George W. Bush had not congratulated Gerhard Schröder on his re-election, which was unprecedented in the history of German-American relations since the establishment of the Federal Republic of Germany.

Meanwhile, the United States was moving closer to war with Iraq. On Oct. 10, a large majority of lawmakers in the House of Representatives and, on the next day, in the Senate had approved a resolution that authorized the US president to go to war against Iraq.

This resolution was essentially nothing less than a declaration of war against Iraq by the American Congress. Now the only hope of avoiding a war, with all of its fatal consequences, lay with the United Nations Security Council in New York.

It was impossible for me to leave Berlin during the coalition negotiations to make a trip to Washington. But now that the negotiations were over, this trip was an urgent necessity, and so I left for the American capital on the morning of Oct. 30. I flew across the Atlantic in the company of a large press contingent, a reflection of the understandably great interest the deep rift between the governments in Washington and Berlin had generated. Because I intended to meet only with Colin Powell in Washington and not with any other member of the American government, we already anticipated the negative tone of reporting in the German media, which, in light of the situation, was unavoidable. And that was exactly what happened.

When Secretary of State Powell and I met privately, we mainly discussed the need to repair the bilateral relationship between the two leaders. We agreed that it would be impossible to maintain at least a businesslike working relationship, both bilaterally and within the alliance, unless there was at least a reasonable professional contact between the two leaders. The negative example that had been set by American Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who had simply ignored his German counterpart Peter Struck in Warsaw a few days after the German parliamentary election, and had then pointed out that someone who is in a hole ought to stop digging himself in more deeply, made it clear that a similar situation could not be repeated during the NATO summit ( eds. note: on Nov. 21, 2002 ) in Prague. Rumsfeld's Warsaw comment later became emblematic for the failure of the Bush administration's Iraq policy after the end of direct combat operations and, in this regard, justifiably reflected poorly on him.

The second topic of our discussion was Iraq, specifically the resolution being drafted in the UN Security Council. On the one hand, the United States was working toward a joint resolution. On the other, the president would not allow his hands to be tied and would not accept any development that excluded the use of his military options.

A Contradiction of Germany's NATO Obligations
From the very beginning, Germany's "no" to the Iraq war contradicted our obligations within NATO, which continued to apply, and this contradiction could be neither eliminated nor denied. For this reason, it was a very thin line we were forced to walk by saying "no," and it required a precise balancing act, which is why, before making any decisions, we discussed the recurring questions at length within the innermost circle of the government, which included the chancellor, the foreign minister, the defense minister and the head of the Chancellery ( eds. note: a ministry-level position and member of the cabinet ).

Our government was later accused of playing a double game during the Iraq war, and it was claimed that we had at least indirectly supported Guantanamo and other American practices in the war on terror, practices that were in crass violation of international law and the prohibition of torture. Although the accusations disappeared over time, and although the charge that we were playing a double game was simply untrue, the mere attempt to challenge the legitimacy of the Schröder administration's historic "no" to the Iraq war highlights the difficulties, ambivalence and even inconsistency that our administration was dealing with at the time.

In addition to saying "no" to the Iraq war, we also agreed within the government that this did not mean we could overlook or even jeopardize our far more extensive foreign policy and security interests. The United States remained indispensable to the security of Germany and Europe, and a war with Iraq wouldn't change that. For all of these reasons, we wanted to continue having American troops stationed in Germany, troops that would now be deployed to Iraq.

This situation forced us into a balancing act, one of which the SPD-Green government never made a secret: the flyover rights for American military aircraft, the use of the German military to guard American installations, the deployment in Kuwait of Fuchs armored reconnaissance vehicles, which could detect the use of chemical weapons, etc., were all part of it. But our government would never have crossed the critical line, namely to secretly support the Iraq war contrary to our public rejection of the war. Such an accusation is simply baseless.

A 'Feeling of Mistrust between the Chancellor and Myself'
The massive US military buildup in the Persian Gulf began in late December. It must have been clear, even to the most naïve, that a war was unavoidable. The American president could hardly assemble such a large military contingent on the ground, in the air and in the water if he were to declare, in the end, that UN inspectors had examined everything and determined that Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction and that the soldiers were now going home. The military buildup made a war mandatory for the American government, because anything less would have destroyed its domestic political prospects.

In the evening ( eds. note: of Jan. 20, 2003 , following a UN Security Council session in New York ), I flew back to Brussels to attend a meeting of the European constitutional convention the next morning. After that, I was to take the TGV to Paris to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Elysée Treaty in a joint session of the German and French parliaments at the Palace of Versailles the next day.

In Paris, my press secretary Walter Lindner surprised me with a stunning news report: On the previous evening, Gerhard Schröder had announced, at a campaign event in Goslar for the SPD's state chapter in Lower Saxony, that Germany could not approve a war resolution in the Security Council: "I have told our French friends in particular but others as well, and I am going a step further in what I say here and now: Do not count on Germany approving a resolution authorizing war. Do not count on that." His statement had reduced our leeway in the Security Council to zero!

It was true that we repeatedly stressed to our partners privately, particularly in the many conversations with France, that it was practically out of the question for us to agree to a war resolution. But in diplomacy, there are worlds between internal discussions and public pronouncements by the head of government, especially at a campaign event. Besides, my suspicions about the French position had hardly subsided. Until then, President Jacques Chirac had carefully avoided any public pronouncements.

Uncertainty over French Position
Would France truly say no to the American Iraq policy in the UN Security Council if a deciding resolution were put forward? This was now the crucial question for us, following Gerhard Schröder's speech in Goslar.

The French president had assured the chancellor that Germany and France would remain united in this crisis, but what exactly did that mean? Chirac's private assurances simply left too much room for interpretation for me to feel reassured. As a result of the chancellor's speech, we found ourselves in an "all or nothing" situation, precisely the position I had wanted to avoid! In short, I was in a real bind.

In the days after Goslar and Versailles, the chancellor and I had several lengthy and increasingly heated private discussions, in which we talked about the various options. It was clear to the chancellor that Germany could not approve a Security Council resolution that would legitimize the war. I told the chancellor that I had no problems whatsoever with this position, as long as we didn't become isolated in the Security Council. If France and perhaps Russia and China were on our side, I said, we wouldn't have a problem at all.

But what if, by voting against the resolution, we ended up with only Syria on our side? What if France, Russia and China and the overwhelming majority of the remaining Security Council members approved a war resolution?

In that case, our only option would be to abstain from voting. I said that Germany could not afford to isolate itself to such an extent, because it would jeopardize our decades of successful integration into the West and Europe, and I wouldn't be a party to that.

Hardening Positions
Our positions hardened during these conversations due to a lack of other alternatives, culminating in mutual threats of resignation that only served to increase the feeling of mistrust between the chancellor and myself.

Once a year, NATO politicians specializing in foreign policy and security issues come together for a meeting that could be described as a defense conference, to discuss threat scenarios, exchange security analyses, cultivate trans-Atlanticism and otherwise pay homage to the arcane science of security policy. Politicians, journalists, military officials and representatives of the defense industry -- a predominately male affair -- gave the meeting the air of an old boys' club, where the members, speaking in deliberately hushed tones, indulged in a hard political realism and stuck it to the idealists, do-gooders and other illusionists.

These old hands of the North Atlantic adhered to the American custom of addressing each other by their first names, and otherwise were as self-important as they were familiar with each other. If these friends of trans-Atlantic security had been forced to agree on a figurehead, their unanimous choice would probably have been Henry Kissinger.

In light of the new balance of power in Germany and the rest of the world, the character of this conference had gradually changed. But in 2003, given the trans-Atlantic confrontation over Iraq, traditional group loyalty was clearly expected. Although Green Party members and Social Democrats were also in the room, if a yes-or-no vote on the war in Iraq had been held in the conference room of the Bayerischer Hof Hotel, Donald Rumsfeld would have received an overwhelming majority.

When Donald Rumsfeld and I greeted each other, the tone was cordial but cool. Given the political situation, it would have been completely pointless to feign what clearly didn't exist: sympathy and understanding.

Rumsfeld spoke before me. He was one of those speakers who are good and even brilliant when they are playing a home game, speaking in front of an audience that already agrees with them or that they can dominate, like journalists at a press conference, because they're the ones making the rules.

Rumsfeld refrained from using sharp language in his speech, no longer mentioning "old Europe." Instead, he asked, somewhat cynically, how anyone could tell someone of his age that age is a negative. Otherwise, he explained once again why Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction (he assumed that they existed) constituted a threat and why it was important to finally remove him from power.

I had already prepared the key points for a speech, but after having listened to Rumsfeld, I decided to speak directly and without notes, at least in the first part of my speech, and to answer questions without resorting to the crutch of diplomatic language. I had also decided not to pay too much attention to the room, where I already expected to be relatively unsuccessful, and to concentrate fully on the television audience.

When I finally began speaking at the podium, I faced an assembled group consisting of a large number of American Senators and Representatives who had traveled to the conference, and who were now staring at me uncomprehendingly. I wasn't quite sure whether it was because of the translation, as I was speaking quickly and emotionally, or whether it had to do with the content of the speech. In any case, this prompted me to switch to English when I reached the critical passage where I explained why I could not support this war, unlike the wars in Kosovo, Macedonia and Afghanistan, namely because I was not convinced by the stated reasons for this war. "Excuse me, I am not convinced!" I said.

A Government on the Brink of Abyss
The real sensation didn't reach me until after I had locked horns with Rumsfeld. There were reports from the agencies that SPIEGEL was reporting from the Chancellery that a plan was being developed there to send UN peacekeepers to Iraq and thus bring about its disarmament.

Neither Defense Minister Peter Struck, who was also at the conference in Munich, nor I had even the faintest idea about a German plan. Although I was familiar with the abstract reflections on the issue within the foreign policy department at the Chancellery, I had wasted little thought on these ideas as I considered them unfeasible, given that the United States, a veto power, was determined to go to war and already had an enormous military force in the region.

I knew nothing about a "plan," nor, apparently, did the government in Paris, with which we were supposedly developing this plan. When asked about it, a spokesman for the French Foreign Ministry promptly denied knowing anything about it. If there had actually been a plan, it would have been dead purely as a result of it having been disclosed.

Gerhard Schröder himself had apparently spoken with journalists from the news magazine near the end of the week and shared a few ideas to them, and that was turned into a veritable cover story! I was bewildered, and I became even more bewildered when I picked up the entire magazine at the airport, because there was also a second part to the story, which related to me and my relationship with the chancellor. It was called "A Relationship with Cracks," and it was a messy story, even dangerous, because it called the crucial axis of the coalition into question.

After reading the story, it was clear to me that the chancellorship of Gerhard Schröder and, along with it, the red-green (SPD-Green Party government) coalition had reached the brink of the abyss. Any other mistakes, no matter how small, had the potential to cause serious damage, because this time it was about nothing less than the chancellor himself.
Obviously you can't have it both ways, you had to partake in the war in order to be favored by the US. I remember hearing that Bush never congratulated Gerhard, so at that point why even bother with a nation that doesn't care about you?