BERLIN – Former German Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg has mockingly remarked that the German government’s decision to back the U.S., British and French strikes in Syria with rhetoric but not with missiles “has shown once again that it’s a grandmaster of dialectics.” U.S. President Donald Trump may snort in agreement. But Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Hegelian approach to geopolitics makes more sense than her Western allies’ willingness to rattle their weapons.
Merkel’s statement on Saturday morning’s strike on Syrian President Bashar Assad’s supposed chemical weapons installations is one of unequivocal support. It also hints at an excuse for Germany’s decision not to participate directly in the raid: The United States, Britain and France, unlike Germany, are permanent members of the United Nations Security Council — nations with the ultimate responsibility of making sure international rules are followed. It’s a subtle abrogation of global leadership ambition in a situation where Germany cannot lead.
Saturday’s strike, after all, was a direct result of U.S. President Donald Trump’s incautious tweet last week, in which he promised that the missiles were “coming.” It was after that outburst that the Trump administration sought to enlist allies’ help (though French President Emmanuel Macron needed no prodding); Trump badly needed followers, especially since he wasn’t going to ask Congress for authorization to take action.
U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May couldn’t refuse: Trump had backed her all the way in the aftermath of the attempted poisoning of a former Russian double agent, and May had to be seen as both grateful and consistent, given that Assad is accused of using chemical weapons. Macron didn’t have to get on board, but he’s cultivating a relationship with Trump that’s better than any other European leaders. And Macron wants to be seen as a foreign policy leader.
Merkel has struggled to get along with the U.S. president and failed to hide her distaste for his politics. Sending a few planes to participate in the raid would have been a relatively cheap way to get into Trump’s good graces: He’s praised Britain and France effusively for going along with him. Yet the German chancellor passed on this opportunity. As ever, her considerations are primarily domestic. Merkel has never wanted a higher international profile for Germany in exchange for a more troubled domestic situation, and she still doesn’t.
May backed Trump despite British public opinion’s strong opposition to the Syria strikes. Macron, too, went against the majority of the French. Merkel, facing similar polls — 60 percent of Germans consider the three nations’ strike a mistake — went along with public opinion.
Merkel was only recently — and barely — able to form a government after an inconclusive election last September. The last thing she needs early in the fragile Cabinet’s tenure is controversy about dragging Germany into what could turn into a military confrontation between the U.S. and Russia. German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who was instrumental in helping Merkel form a coalition with his old party, the Social Democrats, warned last week against “galloping alienation” between the West and Russia. Merkel and other German government officials make it clear they’re no friends of Russian President Vladimir Putin, but that they don’t want any part of a hot war with his country. That’s not as self-contradictory as it might seem.
Merkel is being criticized both from the right and from the left, anyway. Green politician Juergen Trittin called the government’s “applause” for the attack on Assad “unbearable”: To the German left, diplomacy is the only way to resolve the Syrian conflict. At the other end of the spectrum are hawks such as zu Guttenberg and Atlanticists like the leaders of the pro-business Free Democratic Party, who condemned the lack of action on Germany’s part as damaging to the country’s alliance with the U.S.
The criticism, however, is easy to deflect. The left should be happy with Merkel’s inaction regardless of the statements she makes: That inaction is what their voters want more than her own. The pro-U.S. politicians should take note that Merkel states unequivocally in which camp she is. And, as her right-hand man, Economy Minister Peter Altmaier told the daily Bild, “If we don’t conduct airstrikes ourselves, that doesn’t mean we’re keeping out.” Germany, for example, trains the anti-Assad Kurdish peshmerga forces.
Another domestic factor is rarely mentioned. Since 2014, 513,213 Syrians have applied for asylum in Germany. Most of them are anti-Assad, but even if only a minority isn’t, it’s simply not wise for Germany to get too mixed up in the Syrian civil war or to lend open military support to one of the sides. Compared with Germany, participants in Saturday’s strikes barely accept any Syrian refugees. The U.S. let in only 3,024 of them last year.
A few bombs dropped on Assad’s military installations would have cost German taxpayers far less than Merkel’s asylum policy does. But I appreciate the refugee effort more, not just for humanitarian reasons but as an important integration experiment that no other country has dared attempt. Dropping bombs on the country of origin of many of these new German residents would further complicate that experiment.
Merkel is a grandmaster of compromise. Her position on Syria is one — between domestic stability and the need to signal loyalty to the U.S.-led Western alliance. It makes sense that the balance of the compromise is in favor of domestic issues. After all, the three nations’ one-time attack on Assad was largely symbolic: It didn’t reverse the Assad regime’s military victory in eastern Ghouta, and, if the regime has any chemical weapons capability left, it’s not likely to have been housed at the obvious, previously used sites that were hit.
When it comes to symbolic gestures, words are about as good as missiles. Most Germans, and this German resident, are pleased their leader understands that.
Berlin-based writer Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist.
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