Joschka Fischer, the former German Foreign Minister (1998-2005) whose tenure in office coincided with the Bush administration’s decision to go to war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, represented the thinking of “Old Europe” (a phrase coined by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld). In a recent interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, Fischer rejected the suggestion that the anti-war stance taken in 2003 by Germany, France, and Russia formed an “anti-American Axis” and called it “nonsense.”
Since leaving office, Fischer has spent a majority of his time in the U.S. He has served as senior fellow at the Lichtenstein Institute of Self Determination and visiting professor at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University (This writer interviewed Fischer earlier this year). Vowing to eschew an active political office, Fischer has been involved in the creation of a European think tank -The European Council on Foreign Relations.
Back on September 18, 2001, in the aftermath of 9/11, Fischer was dispatched to Washington to get a sense of where the Bush administration was going. Fischer met with President George W. Bush and Paul Wolfowitz, Deputy Secretary of Defense and as noted in the Der Spiegel interview, he was “deeply concerned” that Saddam Hussein and Iraq were next in line for an attack. Fischer conceded that Saddam Hussein ran a horrible government, but he believed “it was a big mistake from the very beginning” and, Iraq should not be the center of the U.S. response.
During the 2002 election campaign, Gerhard Schroder then Germany’s Chancellor declared that Germany would not take part in a war in Iraq. France’s President Chirac, and Russia’s Putin joined him in opposition to the U.S. Fischer considered it a mistake. As he put “Had Russia and France agreed to join the war, we would have joined Syria as the only naysayers.”
As Foreign Minister Fischer was in a bind and he made it clear to Schroder that if Germany was isolated as the only western power opposed to the U.S., he would resign. But Fischer is quick to clarify his government’s position. Schroder made a promise to the German public and if he backed down, he would have been forced to resign.
In the Der Spiegel interview (October 2, 2007), Fischer claimed that there was no anti-American axis. “We and the French were deeply concerned that the U.S. was biting off more than it could chew in Iraq, and that it was taking a fatally wrong step. We told ourselves that we could not afford a weakened U.S. The concern was that the U.S. would ultimately leave behind a vacuum that neither the Europeans nor anyone else could fill.”
Lest we forget, both France and Germany had vested interests in protecting their commercial dealings with Iraq. The French had built the Osirak nuclear facility near Baghdad and cooperated closely with Saddam. German companies were contracted to do infrastructure work in Iraq, while the Russians sold Saddam weapons. Human rights and morality were not exactly uppermost on the French, German and Russian governments mind.
For Chirac, who dreamed of building a French-led Mediterranean power base through commercial, cultural, and defense associations, a weakened U.S. would not be a problem. For Putin, a weaker America in the Middle East would mean a larger role for Russia. Germany’s Schroder joined Chirac in charting an alternative European policy in the Middle East.
The Clinton administration failed to take Islamist terrorism seriously, it considered the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center as a “criminal justice” matter rather than Jihadist terrorism, and the George H. Bush administration pursued a multi-lateral approach in the war against Saddam in 1991. The Europeans, including the Germans, concluded that President George W. Bush would follow his father’s foreign policy. Fischer pointed out that British Prime Minister Tony Blair also believed that George W. will continue his father’s multilateral approach in foreign policy. The Europeans, much like the Clinton administration, did not grasp the nature of the 9/11-terror attack on America, nor did they take Islamic terrorism seriously.
Fischer goes on to explain the Bush administration’s view on Iraq as “Unfinished business” from the first Iraq war in 1991, when the U.S. military stopped short of Baghdad. This notion, of “unfinished business“ was never truly accepted in Europe, Fischer reasoned. “We considered it a secondary matter, and yet it was the central foreign policy issue of the Bush administration.”
Fischer told Der Spiegel that the war in Iraq changed the situation in the Middle East completely. The individual crises in the region had been disconnected or only loosely connected to Iraq. Now, “they were suddenly tied together.” He added, “As a result of the Iraq war, Iran acquired the central role in the region. Tehran never had the power to put itself in this position on its own volition.” Fischer concluded, “We now have a completely new and extremely dangerous crisis situation in the Gulf, one in which Saudi Arabia and Iran are competing for hegemony. At the same time, Iran serves as the link to the Eastern crisis zone in this region, namely Afghanistan and Pakistan, which also brings the Pakistani-Indian conflict into the picture.”
Referring to the Middle East as “a region on our border,” Fischer asserted that the ongoing war in Iraq would have a decisive influence on Germany’s security. Fischer fears that things are “slipping away politically.” He concluded that, “No one knows who will come into power in Saudi Arabia or Egypt tomorrow, and everywhere we look the war in Iraq has in fact strengthened rather than weakened radical forces.”
A more conservative leadership in France and Germany has replaced the “Old Europe” of Fischer, Schroder, and Chirac. Now the question is: whether Europe will fight Islamist terrorism or appease it?