An American drone killed eight German citizens in Pakistan this week. Germany's non-reaction says volumes about its role in the war on terror.
If a drone passed over Pakistan's militant-plagued North Waziristan region, leaving in its wake a destroyed mosque and the corpses of at least eight terrorism suspects of German citizenship, how would you describe what happened?
You might say it's a reminder of the lethal efficiency of the CIA; an argument to remain vigilant in the war in Afghanistan; or further confirmation that Pakistan is, as the title of one recent book puts it, the world's most dangerous place.
If a drone passed over Pakistan’s militant-plagued North Waziristan region, leaving in its wake a destroyed mosque and the corpses of at least eight terrorism suspects of German citizenship, how would you describe what happened?
You might say it’s a reminder of the lethal efficiency of the CIA; an argument to remain vigilant in the war in Afghanistan; or further confirmation that Pakistan is, as the title of one recent book puts it, the world’s most dangerous place.
But if you were the German government, it seems, you simply wouldn’t say anything at all.
German officials have made no comment to date — not least because they haven’t been under any pressure to make one. The references to Monday’s drone attack in Germany’s major newspapers were nothing more than dutiful, buried under news of local protests in Stuttgart against a new train station, and burgeoning soap operas of the young soccer season. There were few signs of any Germans trying to muster outrage over the fact that German citizens had apparently been killed under cover of night by a foreign government.
It’s true that the reports that Germans were among the victims of the attack are as yet unconfirmed; the CIA rarely discusses its operations in public. But the silence reminds one of the similar quiet that followed revelations that the government of former chancellor Gerhard Schröder had colluded in the prolongation of an innocent German citizen’s confinement at the Guantánamo Bay prison. Indeed, it is of a piece with Germany’s general diffidence toward — even neurotic repression of — the realities of the war on terror that the country sometimes gives the impression of having unwittingly signed up for. Germany provides the third-largest military force to NATO’s mission in Afghanistan, but politicians have avoided using the word “war” for the duration of the engagement. Obfuscation became the solution to a public wildly hostile to military ventures.
Germany’s major parties have brokered a consensus over keeping troops in Afghanistan for the time being, though it’s less a matter of grand strategy than prudence. Berlin doesn’t seem as seized as Washington is by the prospect of a devastating, imminent attack — officials at the chancellery didn’t raise the terrorism threat level this week as did the United States and Britain, and politicians and journalists chided foreign governments for exaggerating the threat. But, ultimately, the German government wants to be nothing less than a “good ally” to the United States and NATO; Germany may be Europe’s largest economy, but it is not yet confident enough in its power to stand alone on major geopolitical questions. German officials don’t yet feel inclined to develop an exit strategy, and this week’s drone attack will do little to change their calculus.
Members of parliament also don’t expect the attack to stir a popular uprising against those alliances, or even against the broader Afghanistan war — though everyone seems to agree that things would be different if the Germans killed by the drone were called Hans or Jörg, instead of bearing Muslim names. As Olaf Böhnke, chief of staff to parliamentarian Dietmar Nietan told me in a telephone interview, “Most people think: These are just immigrants or whatever.”
Indeed, it’s the specter of mass Muslim migration, not terrorism, that fires debate in Germany. In late August, Thilo Sarrazin, a member of the central bank, released an intemperate book suggesting that Muslim immigrants have contributed to an inexorable “dumbing down” of society, leading to a firestorm of criticism: Sarrazin has since resigned his post. On the 20th anniversary of German reunification on Oct. 3, Germany’s president appealed to German Muslims, the vast majority of whom are of Turkish origin, to consider themselves part of the fabric of German society; he insisted that, in addition to Christianity and Judaism, “Islam also belongs to Germany.”
The president’s fellow Christian Democratic Party (CDU) members felt compelled to temper his generosity. “Such remarks can be misunderstood,” said one leading party member from Bavaria. “Religious freedom must not become religious equality.” There have even been murmurings of a possible third party forming to the right of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU, one that would be more receptive to anti-immigrant sentiments.
Some may wonder why Germany doesn’t have such parties already, given their growing salience in Stockholm and Amsterdam. The country’s dark 20th-century history provides the most plausible answer — but we might just be witnessing the calm before the storm. If a terrorist attack occurs on German soil, all bets may be off. Most Germans carry the half-forgotten memory that their own country has been used by radical Muslims to hatch terrorism plots, including the 9/11 attacks: Stoked by an experience of local carnage, German anger would likely be focused locally. Judging from their eerie silence this week, Germans generally seem willing to let America handle the world’s dirty work abroad. It’s an open question, though, how they want to settle their anxieties at home.
Cameron Abadi is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @CameronAbadi
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