The reactions of German politicians and media commentators to U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s request for troop support in southern Afghanistan are striking not only for the virtual unanimity with which the request has been rejected, but above all for their virulence. The reactions were sparked by two reports that appeared on the same day (Jan. 31) in the Sueddeutsche Zeitung and in the Spiegel. The reports referred to a letter from Gates to German Minister of Defense Franz Josef Jung. Whereas the Sueddeutsche Zeitung described the tone of Gates’s letter as “unusually sharp,” unnamed “Ministry of Defense circles” were cited in the Spiegel as calling it outright “shameless.” In other respects as well, the Spiegel report was more inflammatory. Thus, for example, it bore the title “Targeted Killing”:seemingly a reference to what the article identifies as the task of NATO troops in southern Afghanistan, but also perhaps a coy allusion to what it likewise calls the “targeting” of Germany by other NATO countries. (This title was replaced by the more neutral-sounding “US Demands More German Troops at Taliban Front” on Spiegel’s English-language site.)
It was only the next day that Spiegel Online published a follow-up article acknowledging that Gates’s supposedly “shameless” letter had also been sent to the French Minister of Defense Hervé Morin and indeed to the defense ministers of all the countries contributing to the NATO-led Afghanistan security force ISAF. Morin, however, had found the letter “studiously polite” [ausgesucht höflich]. Neither the Sueddeutsche Zeitung nor the Spiegel provided any direct quotations from the letter and the content indirectly invoked appeared to do nothing more than rehearse Gates’s already well-known concerns about unequal risk-sharing among NATO countries in the Afghanistan mission. Discrepancies between the two reports, moreover, give cause to wonder whether the publications in fact had direct access to the document. Thus, whereas the Sueddeutsche Zeitung described the letter as one and a half pages long, the Spiegel described it as fully “eight pages.”
Nonetheless, the allegedly “shameless” tone of the unpublished letter was thereafter taken as given by virtually all the rest of the German media and the political class. Thus, for example, in a contribution in the weekly Die Zeit, Joachim Fritz-Vannahme of Germany’s influential Bertelsmann Foundation could refer without further ado to “the shameless letter” that “the American Minister of Defense has written to his German counterpart.” (Pleading, nonetheless, for greater German engagement, Fritz-Vannahme pointed to the plight of the Canadians forces in Afghanistan: “The Canadians take nation-building seriously,” he wrote, “They think like the Europeans (and not like the Americans who above all have the ‘War against Terror” in mind).”)
Christian Democratic Foreign Policy spokesman Eckart von Klaeden described the “tone and content” of the letter as “totally inappropriate” (source: Die Welt), whereas the Social Democratic Deputy Foreign Minister Gernot Erler described it as “gruff” and accused Washington of failing to appreciate Germany’s allegedly already “leading” contributions in Afghanistan. Green Party Defense spokesperson Winfried Nachtwei went so far as to suggest that the Gates letter represented a “relapse” to the “Rumsfeld period” (source: Westfälische Nachrichten). “Loyalty and solidarity does not mean submissiveness,” Nachtwei added snippily (source: Die Zeit). If such recriminations are hardly unexpected coming from a Green Party spokesperson, what was more remarkable was to find them being echoed by the leadership of the Greens’ supposed arch-rivals on the “conservative” side of the political spectrum, the Free Democratic Party (FDP). Thus, Nachtwei’s FDP counterpart Birgit Homburger likewise found that Gates had “clearly placed himself in the tradition of Donald Rumsfeld” (source: Sueddeutsche Zeitung). And when NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer remarked, in an interview with the tabloid Bild, that Germany was doing “exemplary” work in the North of Afghanistan and that its help could also be used elsewhere, FDP Chair Guido Westerwelle shot back: “De Hoop Scheffer is the Secretary-General of the whole NATO alliance and not of the American Department of Defense” (source: Hamburger Abendblatt).
The allusions to Gates’s predecessor Donald Rumsfeld are in fact appropriate in this context. For the episode is highly reminiscent of the outraged reactions provoked in Germany and France by the former Defense Secretary’s referring to the two countries as “old Europe” in a January 2003 press conference. Torn from its context (and mistranslated in French), the in the meanwhile infamous remark was transformed by the European media into an “insult.” Inspection of the full transcript reveals, however, that it was part of a merely factual observation about the relative support for an intervention in Iraq among “old” and “new” NATO countries. (See my article “Fabricated Outrage.”)