- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 2, 2006

The current debate in Germany concerning the extent to which Germans should be engaged in peacekeeping in Lebanon is an argument about Germany’s past as well as its future. The passions about the burdens of history generate arguments both for and against German engagement as part of a European-United Nations force. While it is appears clear the German government has agreed to provide support in the form of rebuilding the country, the possibility of German soldiers confronting Israeli troops seems to be at the core of concerns among those who advise against any form of German military involvement.

Despite the fact even Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has welcomed the idea of German troops participating in a U.N.-sponsored peacekeeping mission, most Germans think sending ground troops to patrol the Lebanese-Israeli border is out of the question. Lebanon renews questions about Germany’s legacy from World War II and the Holocaust and how Germans view it in terms of today’s turbulent world.

Germany’s commitment to Israel for the last half-century has been demonstrated by consecutive governments, including willingness to engage in helping to find and work on the road map to peace in the larger region. Indeed it was exactly because of Germany’s history that relations between Israel and Germany were perceived to have a special character defined by remembrance of the past and renewal of partnership. Germany has also been able more recently to serve as a reliable mediator in the region, on which Joschka Fischer spent much of his time and his successor is assuming as well.

German history was also the source of those who, during the Balkan wars, arguing for a German responsibility to be engaged in stopping the slaughter on its very doorstep, even without a U.N. mandate. That debate centered on the German legacy, one that had demanded saying “no more wars” but now also had to say “no more Auschwitzes.” While the debate’s framework was highly charged, Germans were trying to understand their past as it shaped their increasing responsibilities. The result was a gradual evolution of German readiness to engage in peacemaking and peacekeeping efforts with now nearly 8,000 soldiers stationed from the Balkans to Afghanistan to the Congo.

Today, if there is to be a contingent of European forces sent to Lebanon, Germany will not be able to steer clear of some form of involvement any more than it could shirk responsibilities in the Balkans. But it has no intention of doing so. It is not only a moral responsibility to support peacekeeping in the Middle East. It represents straightforward German interests as well. Whether it is the future of energy supplies or increasing turbulence in a region on Europe’s doorstep, there are many reasons for Germany to help resolve the conflict in this neighborhood.

Yet during and after a decision to provide whatever resources, Germans should also listen to themselves and their debate about this whole set of issues because it seems the German public does not readily grasp where its interests and the instability in the region overlap.

According to current polls, the majority of Germans — 58 percent — believe Germany should not be involved in the peacekeeping mission. Some would argue for reasons involving Germany’s past. Others would argue that German soldiers should not be put in danger in a turbulent region with an unclear U.N. mandate, a reasonable concern for any country.

Regardless of the reasons, the German public seems more unwilling and uncertain about responding to this crisis than others in the recent past.

While Germany will always carry the memory of the Holocaust, that is not all there is to understanding Germany’s past. Indeed, the second half of the 20th century has offered a German legacy which can be understood as a cumulative commitment to the values and the institutions that protected Germany when it was on the front line of the Cold War. Now, 61 years after the end of World War II, Germany has the ability and the responsibility to help others who need that protection.

That would include helping protect northern Israel from rocket attacks, and protect Lebanon, whose people seek safety and security in their homes and villages. Germans need to discuss and debate not only what they can do but why. This is not only about a cease-fire across the Lebanese-Israeli border. It is about the future of a whole region plagued by instability, fear and fanaticism, a future also closely tied to that of Europe and the rest of the world. We all have a stake in this.

Given the current majority sentiment for Germany to stay out of this challenge, political leaders need to lead that debate more effectively. They need to explain the costs and define the goals. There has been much confusion within and from Berlin about what Germany should and can contribute to solving the Middle East crisis. Some of that is involves political infighting between the government and opposition. Some of it reflects real concerns about German capabilities to deliver what it is needed, what other nations are doing and what Beirut is asking for.

But arguments about what Germany should not do seem to have crowded out those about what Germany needs to do. Of course, the Germans can always point to the French for a worse example of indecision.

Germany’s role in the Middle East — most especially with Israel — should always be measured with an eye to its past. But that past should serve as a reminder to help shape the future for those seeking to end the violence in that war-ravaged region.

Jackson Janes is executive director of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University.

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