“We must prevent the outbreak of a proxy war between regional powers on Iraqi soil.”

15.06.2014 - Interview

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in an interview on the territorial gains by ISIS militiamen in Iraq, and on possible implications with respect to the withdrawal of the German Armed Forces from Afghanistan. The Foreign Minister also spoke about the search for a new President of the European Commission. First published in Welt am Sonntag on 15 June 2014.

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in an interview on the territorial gains by ISIS militiamen in Iraq, and on possible implications with respect to the withdrawal of the German Armed Forces from Afghanistan. The Foreign Minister also spoke about the search for a new President of the European Commission. First published in Welt am Sonntag on 15 June 2014.


Mr Steinmeier, in Iraq, ISIS militiamen have captured a series of cities, and they are killing soldiers, police officers and civilians. How dangerous is this development?

Highly dangerous – in that it may further destabilise the entire region. ISIS is evolving from a terrorist organisation into a military one and is expanding its reach. It can now also conduct operations in an extensive area. This threatens internal cohesion in Iraq, and it threatens neighbouring countries – not least because of the increasing flows of refugees.

Who can stop these militants, who are a splinter group of al-Qaida?

That is the task of the Iraqi security forces. Much will depend on whether ISIS operations are essentially limited to areas of Iraq with a Sunni majority, or whether they extend to Kurdish and Shiite areas as well. The militants are now close to Baghdad. Resistance to ISIS will be much stronger there. The erosion of central government authority in Iraq can only be stopped if Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish interests can be assembled in Baghdad. Many opportunities for this have been passed up in recent years. Of course, the pressure created by the ISIS threat is redrawing the political landscape. I think we must not be under any illusions: The territorial gains by ISIS have not made things easier.

Which government should now take on responsibility? Washington? Tehran?

We must prevent the outbreak of a proxy war between regional powers on Iraqi soil. All neighbouring countries – Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Turkey and also Iran – cannot have an interest in a huge, lawless area developing beyond Syria in their immediate neighbourhood, which would become a stomping ground for mercenary groups, Islamists of all kinds, and terrorists. Iraq must not become a permanent threat to stability in the Near and Middle East.

What can Germany do?

Since 2003 we have invested a great deal in what has been built up in Iraq. Germany has sustainable relations with all countries in the region. But we should not overestimate what Germany is able to contribute.

Are you ruling out that German troops will help stabilise Iraq?

I cannot think of any constellation in which German military personnel would be employed there.

Turkey, a fellow member of NATO, has also been targeted by ISIS, and it could invoke Article 5 ....

The kidnapping of Turkish diplomatic staff in Mosul clearly broke a taboo, and we condemn it in the strongest terms. But I do not see that ISIS has planned on launching an attack on Turkish territory. At any event, Turkey has not expressed any expectations vis-à-vis NATO.

Commentators like to blame the United States for developments in Iraq. Some criticise the intervention, others the withdrawal ....

As in most cases, history does not have cut-and-dried answers. Many actors, including external ones, can be blamed for what has gone wrong in the Middle East. Intelligent analysis of this has filled entire libraries. But that does not help. The root of the problem is the central government in Baghdad’s inability to involve and ensure participation of the country’s various regions, population groups and religions, with a view to promoting stability in Iraq. And this has occurred at a time when large amounts of international aid were pouring into the country. Over the past ten years, Germany made available a total of EUR 400 million; other countries have contributed even more. This international aid was not sufficiently used to create political and economic stability.

Could a similar scenario unfold in Afghanistan?

The situations cannot be compared. Of course, all is not well in Afghanistan. There are many small and large shortcomings in the country’s political and economic development. Afghanistan is not out of the woods yet. We all wish more progress had been made. But we should be aware that there have been positive developments, as well. After all, it is encouraging that Afghanistan is currently holding a presidential election. The first round has been a success. It is good that so many Afghans also turned out to vote in the second round. What is new is that political power in Afghanistan is not being seized through violence and war, or being inherited. No, this is being decided by people casting their ballots. Both candidates in the run-off election have won recognition far beyond their country's borders. It is safe to assume that either one is capable of steering the country through the certainly difficult period of transition following the end of the ISAF mission.

Is the road map for withdrawal of the German Armed Forces from Afghanistan still valid?

The road map remains in effect. Planning is under way for our post-2015 engagement. It is a good thing the United States has now also presented its plans for the time after the withdrawal of our combat forces. We will take all necessary decisions jointly with our partners, once the preliminary issues have been resolved. This includes the legal status of our military personnel in the Resolute Support follow-on mission. Both presidential candidates have publicly declared they will address this issue immediately upon taking up office.

Karzai, the outgoing president, has been ridiculed as the mayor of Kabul, because his influence supposedly does not extend beyond the capital city. Federal Chancellor Merkel, on the other hand, has been apostrophised as the most powerful woman in the world. Are both claims overstated?

Most importantly, we must not become presumptuous! It is true that, in the past twelve years, Germany has evolved from the sick man of Europe into an anchor of political stability and an economic engine. We have gained a great deal of respect. Whoever heads the German government also represents this strength. That is why the Chancellor can influence and shape developments beyond the remit of German policy.

Will Angela Merkel succeed in having Jean-Claude Juncker selected as the next President of the European Commission?

We must not be impatient. I for one did not expect us to reach an agreement the week after the European Parliament elections on such a complex group of top positions. After all, this is not only about Juncker and the position of European Commission President, but also about the overall design of a large personnel package. Apart from selecting the most capable person for the job, a balance of political power must also be struck: between the political groups; between large and small Member States; between the north and the south; between the countries that are, and those that are not, participating in the common currency; between women and men ....

Is Merkel really campaigning for the former Luxembourg Prime Minister?

The best thing would be for you to ask her yourself! What I know is that both large European political groups have reached an agreement based on their democratic responsibility, namely that the candidate of the strongest party should also be selected for the top position at the European Commission. That is the guideline. And talks are under way.

Does Juncker still even want to become President of the Commission?

That question, too, you should not address to me, but to Jean-Claude Juncker. I’ve seen no signs that he has changed his mind or is thinking of withdrawing his candidacy.

On such issues, how much consideration should be given to the United Kingdom?

There are important issues at stake. This is about a political programme for the next five years, which will be very important: It is a time when Europe must bounce back economically and during which we must prevent a political crisis from emerging as a result of the economic problems in some countries. In view of the current difficulties in agreeing on an EU personnel structure, no one should think that we can, or even should, simply do without the United Kingdom. A European Union without the United Kingdom would be quite different – and I am firmly convinced it would not be a better European Union!

More and more members of the CDU are calling for a second term for Günther Oettinger in the European Commission. Is the SPD totally opposed to this?

Why should I find fault with the qualifications of Günther Oettinger? Recently, during the Ukraine crisis, we have been in close contact. But important posts in the European Union must also be filled by social democrats – and we have certain expectations!

Would the European Socialist candidate Martin Schulz be a good European foreign minister?

Martin Schulz is without a doubt an excellent choice for top EU posts.

Reproduced by kind permission of Welt am Sonntag.

Related content


Top of page