On Tuesday this week, Chancellor Merkel's cabinet voted to extend for another year what has arguably been Germany's most controversial military operation since the end of WWII, namely the 2006 deployment of Bundeswehr naval forces off the Lebanese coast to interdict arms shipments to Hezbollah forces as part of the UNIFIL mission. In October 2006, the German contingent, which currently consists of about 1,000 soldiers and eight ships, took the lead in UNIFIL's maritime mission, which counts a total of 2,000 forces and is also supported by Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Greece, Turkey, and Bulgaria.
Chancellor Merkel visited UNIFIL military personnel

aboard the Brandenburg earlier this year.
In August last year, UN Security Council resolution 1701 had authorized up to 15,000 UN peacekeepers (about 13,000 troops were subsequently deployed) to help keep the shaky ceasefire in the wake of the 2006 Lebanon War--the bloody, destructive, and ultimately inconclusive 34-day proxy war between Israeli forces and Hezbollah. In a piece for THE DAILY STANDARD published almost exactly a year ago, titled "Germany Goes to the Middle East," I analyzed why the Bundeswehr's naval deployment in Lebanon proved to be so divisive for Chancellor Merkel's Grand Coalition government, the three opposition parties, and German public opinion:
Ironically, both supporters and opponents of Germany's military engagement in Lebanon have made veiled references to the Holocaust in support of their positions. Those in favor of sending troops argue that Germany has a moral obligation to do everything in its power to help guarantee the existence of the Jewish state. […] In contrast, Germans opposed to sending soldiers to police the ceasefire argue that this would have the potential of setting Bundeswehr against Israeli soldiers. […] And still others argue that precisely because of Germany's pro-Israel stance, it cannot be part of a neutral U.N. force in Lebanon which, by definition, would have to respond equally to ceasefire violations by either party.
On Tuesday, the German government portrayed the Lebanese naval mission as a success story. According to German Defense Minister Franz-Josef Jung, Bundeswehr forces checked more than 8,500 ships via radio, 35 of which were subsequently searched by the Lebanese in their ports. According to official statistics, none of these searches yielded any weapons. It should be noted that no ship was ever searched by force. Under German law, the Lebanon mission's 12-month extension (like all Bundeswehr deployments abroad for that matter) has to be approved by the Bundestag in a parliamentary vote, which is now scheduled for mid-September. It is widely expected that the governing CDU/CSU-SPD Grand Coalition parties and the Greens will provide overwhelming support for the naval operation. In contrast, the pacifist-populist post-Communist Left Party and parts of the pro-market Free Democratic Party (FDP) are still adamantly opposed to the Bundeswehr mission. The Left Party opposes any Bundeswehr mission abroad and wants to strictly limit the military to Germany's territorial defense. The FDP is particularly concerned about the potential for German-Israeli military clashes and demands more assurances from Chancellor Merkel's government that those issues have been addressed. In fact, in October last year, several incidents involving German UNIFIL ships/helicopters and Israeli fighters took place off the Lebanese coast. While the Israeli government denied reports that its jets had fired two shots at an unarmed German reconnaissance vessel, Prime Minister Olmert had a 40-minute conference call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel a few days later to apologize for the unspecified incident and to assure her government that these things would not happen again.

In its decision on Tuesday, the German cabinet not only supported the mission's 12-month extension, but also decided to lower the maximum number of German troops deployed in Lebanon from 2,400 to 1,400. Also, Berlin only committed to lead the UNIFIL maritime force until February 29, 2008, at which point another country needs to take over. A German government official was quick to point out that this lowering of the force cap--existing troop numbers are well below that new threshold anyway--would not result in a "qualitative reduction" of Germany's Lebanon mission, which also involves training the country's army, police, and border guard units. Back in the summer of 2006, German history complicated the debate over the Bundeswehr's UNIFIL participation, which ultimately proved to be extremely divisive. One year later, with no serious incidents or casualties to report from Lebanon, the domestic political discussion about Bundeswehr deployments abroad is once again focused on the Afghanistan mission, where recent German casualties have triggered renewed (leftist) calls for a pull-out from a military operation that is now opposed by about two-thirds of the German population (up about 10 percentage points in the past six weeks), including many members and voters from the governing CDU/CSU-SPD coalition parties. Chancellor Merkel's government is committed to extending the Afghanistan mission through a parliamentary vote in the Bundestag in mid-October, just a month after the Lebanon decision. In this context, highlighting Germany's UNIFIL mission as a success, setting a concrete date for the mission lead hand-over (not the pull out though!), as well as lowering the troop cap for German troops deployed there--a purely symbolic measure anyway--should help avoid turning the Lebanon operation into a public diplomacy challenge ahead of the politically charged Afghanistan vote in October.
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