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Germany's Dangerous Gitmo Gamble

Foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier wants to grant some Guantanamo inmates political asylum.

12:00 AM, May 14, 2009 • By ULF GARTZKE
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German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier is on the campaign trail. He is running as the left-wing SPD party's candidate to replace incumbent center-right CDU Chancellor Angela Merkel in the Bundestag elections set for September 27, 2009. For Steinmeier--a rather dull 53-year-old technocrat-turned-politician who had previously served as Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's chief of staff--this marks the first time ever that he is competing for elected office. To avoid any risk that this political novice stumble in his first campaign, the SPD party gave him a safe district in the former East German state of Brandenburg.

Back in 2002, Steinmeier's boss ran on a populist, anti-Bush platform and made a successful, last-ditch effort to save his faltering re-election campaign by confronting Washington head-on over the Iraq war along with French president Jacques Chirac. Seven years later, Schroeder's disciple Steinmeier is pursuing a very different political strategy vis-à-vis the United States: Given President Obama's phenomenal popularity ratings in Germany (remember that speech in front of 200,000 fans in Berlin last July?), Steinmeier is now over-eager to appear as someone who is held in high esteem by the new president and his administration--especially with regard to the issue of granting select Guantanamo inmates political asylum in Germany. In fact, Steinmeier has been one of the EU's earliest and most outspoken proponents of the notion that Europe should help the Obama administration close down Gitmo by accepting those allegedly "innocent" and "harmless" inmates who cannot be returned to their countries of origin for fear of being persecuted and tortured there. In the case of Germany, Steinmeier is specifically pushing for the admission of nine Uighurs, Muslim-Chinese men who were arrested by U.S. forces during anti-terrorist operations in Afghanistan back in 2002-2003.

Washington is in dire need of European support on the crucial Guantanamo issue if it wants to comply with President Obama's ambitious executive order to close down the camp by January 21, 2010. Just two weeks ago, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Dan Fried, the new Guantanamo special envoy, toured several European capitals to drum up support for the permanent relocation of about 30 of the remaining 241 Guantanamo inmates to countries such as France, Germany, and the UK. Of course, Dan Fried, who until recently served as the State Department's top Europe man under Condi Rice, knows full well that in recent years, prominent EU leaders like Mr. Steinmeier had repeatedly rebuffed similar attempts by the Bush administration to enlist Europe's support in the closure of Guantanamo. While European politicians would routinely decry Washington's blatant disregard of international law with respect to Guantanamo, none of these leaders wanted to be seen as cooperating with the hugely unpopular Bush administration on this very complex and difficult issue. Clearly, the German foreign minister's sudden change of heart on the Gitmo dossier smacks of hypocrisy and had probably more to do with political expediency during an uphill election campaign rather than genuine human rights concerns.

Mr. Steinmeier's obvious political opportunism was also betrayed by the fact that he failed to first discuss his Guantanamo asylum initiative with those German political players that really matter on this controversial issue: conservative CDU interior minister Wolfgang Schaeuble and his counterparts from Germany's 16 different states. Under German law, it is only Schaeuble who can give the green light to grant asylum to Gitmo inmates on political or humanitarian grounds, provided that there is at least one state that is willing to accept them. Wolfgang Schaeuble and virtually all other conservative CDU/CSU and even some SPD regional interior ministers have already come out strongly against Washington's request to accept Uighur Guantanamo prisoners for fear that they would pose incalculable risks to Germany's security. As Schaeuble put it bluntly: "It is not evident why Germany in particular should consider admitting these persons. What we have received from Washington in terms of documentation so far is not sufficient to make an asylum decision in any of these cases." For his part, the SPD interior minister of Saxony-Anhalt in former East Germany voiced doubts that the Uighurs detained in Afghanistan "were all just traveling with the Taliban by pure chance". The interior ministers' guarded assessments are mirrored by state security officials who are warning against the potentially dangerous consequences of being rushed into admitting these nine Uighur men to Germany--be it motivated by a desire to score quick political points on the campaign trail or to please the Obama administration.