By Arab News
By Chris Doyle*
After more than a decade and a half at the helm of Europe’s largest and most potent state, Chancellor Angela Merkel is in the last few months of office. She is a rarity; one of the few major global leaders to attract widespread respect, even from her opponents.
Merkel has put Germany at the center of European politics, though is wary of being seen to be too dominant. She may have shepherded Europe through multiple crises, the pandemic being the latest, but how does Merkel’s record stack up on the Middle East? It is perhaps a less stellar record.
To understand this, one has to examine the Merkel makeup. The greatest single impact on her worldview was the first 35 years of her life in the dictatorship of East Germany. She has continually emphasized the value of freedom and Germany’s vital alliance with the US. She referenced her East German experience when, in 2010, she gave a prize to Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, whose depictions of the Prophet Muhammad angered many Muslims. It also explains her relationship with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, with whom she has had her clashes. She slammed the Turkish invasion of Syria’s Afrin in 2018 but has done little to bring about a reversal. Where is the pressure on Turkey to pull its forces out of the areas it occupied in northern Syria? Like Barack Obama, in 2011 she called for Bashar Assad to step aside, but with no intention of taking any action to expedite such a move.
She is widely criticized for her overcautious approach, again sharing some of the characteristics of President Obama. She likes to deliberate methodically, study a problem and acquire all the facts. She is the antithesis of President Donald Trump, who boasted that he relied on his gut. Merkel is more scientific in her approach, as befits her academic background. Rash decisions are alien to her. This explains why Germany abstained at the UN Security Council on the Libya no-fly-zone vote in 2011 and decided not to participate in the NATO operations. She saw this as Nicolas Sarkozy of France playing to his domestic audience, but she also feared the US could suffer another Iraq-like saga.
Against this, Merkel was persuaded to step up to host the current Berlin process on Libya — a decision not universally popular in her entourage. It met with initial success, even if it has stalled of late.
Her caution showed again in Afghanistan, where German troops were deployed in the relatively more secure north and Merkel made it clear she had no intention of expanding their operations. In this, she was in tune with the pacifist instincts of modern Germany.
Aside from a hatred of dictators, Merkel also dislikes showy, flamboyant and populist leaders, with a clear aversion to the likes of Trump, Silvio Berlusconi, Sarkozy and Boris Johnson. She always found it harder to collaborate with them on the Middle East. Her pragmatic streak usually triumphed, preferring compromise and mediation over confrontation. In the Middle East, this first came to the fore in Lebanon in 2006, when Germany played a key role in brokering an Israel-Hezbollah deal to end the war, and later in efforts to release the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit from Hamas.
Merkel had an emotional attachment to Israel borne out of a deep sense of historic German responsibility for the Holocaust. She became the first head of a foreign government to address the Knesset in 2008. Merkel also maintained Germany’s historic reticence to hold Israel to account for its treatment of the Palestinians and officially accepted the “Jewish character of the state.” Yet, occasionally, Merkel would take Israel to task. She was not a fan of Israel’s settlement expansion or home demolitions. Back in 2011, she had a row with Benjamin Netanyahu over settlement activity and his failure to take a single step toward peace. Their relations never warmed.
This also showed on Iran. Merkel never sided with the hawks like Netanyahu and she criticized Trump when he withdrew the US from the 2015 nuclear deal. It was one of many issues on which she and Trump did not see eye to eye — but it also showed she could stand her ground. However, doubts persist as to whether she has been too soft on Iran.
But caution did not equal a lack of courage. As much as she valued Germany’s relations with the US, she went out on a limb when she felt it mattered. Before meeting George W. Bush in 2006, Merkel gave an interview in which she called on the US to close down its Guantanamo Bay detention camp, protesting that it “should not exist.” She did this only months after she came to power and before she had built up a rapport with Bush.
This was also a time when US-German relations were at an all-time low after the Gerhard Schroeder era and the massive uproar over the 2003 Iraq war.
Her most courageous decision was opening Germany’s doors and laying out the welcome mat for refugees, largely from Syria, in the summer of 2015. At the time, nearly every other European state bar Sweden was heading in the opposite direction, fortifying the barricades.
Merkel stood alone, even in the teeth of opposition inside Germany. She proclaimed: “Wir schaffen das (we can do this).” Instead of taking the easy path, she called it a “national duty” to support those in danger. It was an extraordinary effort, with nearly a million people applying for asylum in Germany in 2015 and 750,000 the following year. It tested every aspect of Germany’s planning to take in so many so fast. The new arrivals had to be given accommodation, taught German and found jobs. Almost six years on, however, the gamble has largely paid off.
Many predicted Merkel’s downfall over refugees. It won her few votes at home, where the far right grew notably in the 2017 elections. A spate of Islamist attacks in Germany, such as the Christmas market attack in Berlin in 2016, did not help, while many refugees have suffered racist attacks.
Merkel steered the European ship in stormy waters. With so many domestic and European challenges, her Germany refused a major role in the Middle East, opting instead for a risk-averse approach. She was fated to lead when many world leaders, including in the US, shifted away from the multilateral approach Merkel favors. That said, as the Middle East remains wracked with conflict, many might argue this was the right approach. The pity is that Merkel was never truly able to cash in her international standing to push for bolder approaches. She will be remembered as a safe pair of hands at a time of international disorder, yet also for opportunities missed.
• Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. Twitter: @Doylech