President Trump’s targeted killing of the world’s master of international terrorism, Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, highlighted Washington’s improved cooperation and concordance with Middle Eastern allies. But it also laid bare tensions between the United States and European allies, specifically France and Germany. Those tensions are a growing problem as Berlin and Paris undermine the Western security alliance, all while accusing the White House of doing the same.
After the Soleimani strike, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News: “I spent the last day-and-a-half, two days, talking to partners in the region, sharing with them what we were doing, why we were doing it, seeking their assistance; they’ve all been fantastic. And then talking to our partners in other places that haven’t been quite as good. Frankly, the Europeans haven’t been as helpful as I wish that they could be.”
This is, unfortunately, a pattern. For all the accusations that Trump is weakening the NATO alliance, Germany and France are arguably the worst offenders.
Faced with decades of escalating, Iranian-sponsored terrorism against NATO members in Iraq, Lebanon, and Afghanistan, Trump neutralized Soleimani and other major terrorists from Iran and the Kata’ib Hezbollah Shiite militia. Violence directed and enabled by Tehran against Germany and France is nothing new. It’s worth recalling that Iran’s regime, along with its Lebanon-based Hezbollah proxy, murdered 58 French paratroopers in Beirut in 1983. And a German court determined that the Iranian government ordered the assassination in 1992 of exiled Iranian Kurdish dissidents in a Berlin restaurant.
Yet both Germany and France vehemently oppose the European Union designating the entirety of Hezbollah a terrorist organization. This isn’t true of all our European allies: The United Kingdom outlawed Hezbollah’s entire movement in 2019.
Soleimani, whose chief proxy was Hezbollah, ordered a spy in Germany and France to surveil Jewish and Israeli institutions, with a view toward carrying out an assassination. His agents planned terrorist attacks against Jewish kindergartens in Germany.
Meanwhile, Berlin’s bizarre attachment to the regime in Tehran is starting to ruffle German feathers. In a rare commentary that cuts against the grain of that country’s conventional wisdom, Welt am Sonntag newspaper editor Antje Schippmann wrote: “Instead of repeatedly holding on to the region’s corrupt but often tyrannical rulers and instead of warning against ‘destabilization’ and a ‘conflagration,’ the federal government [in Berlin] could recognize the signs of the times and stand on the side of the secular, democratic protest movements — against the Revolutionary Guards and their apocalyptic visions.”
It took days for Chancellor Angela Merkel to condemn the Iran-sponsored militias that stormed the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad at the end of December or to defend the American killing of Soleimani. She and French President Emmanuel Macron finally issued a joint statement with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, criticizing the “negative role Iran has played in the region.”
But Merkel’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, decided instead to crack the whip at Pompeo, tweeting: “This action has not made it easier to reduce tensions.”
This is the same Maas who sent his diplomats to Tehran’s embassy in Berlin last year to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s founding revolution.
But it’s not just about Iran — far from it. Macron on Oct. 21 described NATO as “brain-dead.” The alliance remains, despite its flaws, a significant bulwark against authoritarian regimes such as Russia, China, and Iran. Trump, this time defending the alliance, fired back that “NATO serves a great purpose. I think that’s very insulting,” adding, “Nobody needs NATO more than France. It’s a very dangerous statement for them to make.”
There seemed to be obvious irony in Trump’s defense of NATO, as during the nascent phase of his presidency, he lambasted NATO as “obsolete.” The president, in contrast to his political counterparts, is capable of change.
The Washington Examiner learned that a worried Merkel brought up Macron’s anti-NATO remark with the American government. U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell told the Washington Examiner: “We made clear that NATO is a crucial organization and a very successful one. While it needs to constantly consider the current and relevant issues, it should also be fully supported by all members. We made clear this support also includes abiding by the Wales Pledge.”
Both Germany and France are falling short of their NATO commitments to spend 2% of their GDP on defense, as outlined in the pledge.
Unsurprisingly, Merkel and Maas stayed silent when Bundestag deputy Nils Schmid, the Social Democratic Party’s foreign policy spokesman in the German legislature, declared that “a war between Iran and the United States would not trigger the NATO alliance.”
Article 5 of NATO requires mutual defense if a member country is attacked. Schmid’s announcement makes the mutual-protection provision toothless and tells enemies that the West is divided. In the face of Tehran’s naval terrorism in the vital Gulf region, his comment is exactly the sort of soggy appeasement that invites increased Iranian aggression.
Schmid’s party is the junior partner in a governing coalition with Merkel’s Christian Democratic Party. Grenell told the Washington Examiner that “I saw the unfortunate comment and have been assured by the Chancellery that this is not the government’s view.”
Grenell has, in many ways, served as a formidable check on misguided German foreign policy. Whenever he meets with German officials, he urges them to ban all of Hezbollah. The Bundestag recently passed a nonbinding resolution calling for a ban on Hezbollah activities.
NATO was, of course, founded to contain the former Soviet Union’s imperialism. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who said he would reverse the dissolution of the Soviet Union if he could, is working overtime to destroy NATO’s potency.
Another salient example of Germany undercutting NATO is its complicity in Putin’s Nord Stream 2 energy project, 90% completed and scheduled to begin operations in mid-2020. The pipeline will run under the Baltic Sea and permit Russia to increase gas exports to Germany greatly. With the backing of Democrats and Republicans in Congress, the Trump administration levied sanctions on the firms building the pipeline. Having Europe’s largest economy, and a NATO member to boot, dependent on Moscow for its energy would be a monumental danger to international security.
Merkel’s desire to solidify the Nord Stream 2 project cannot be decoupled from her government’s failure to crack down on Putin’s threat to NATO and on his assassinations across Europe (think of the nerve agent poisonings of Russian double agents Sergei and Yulia Skripal in the U.K. in 2018).
Then there’s China. In October, Merkel’s government put together guidelines for the build-out of 5G networks in Germany. Those rules would probably permit China’s state-owned telecommunications giant Huawei to build a 5G wireless network in the Federal Republic.
The U.S. views Huawei as a danger because the company will be able to penetrate sensitive communications and collect vast amounts of intelligence. Consequently, Washington announced it would downgrade intelligence-sharing with Germany if Merkel green-lights the rules.
Japan, Australia, and New Zealand have banned Huawei equipment from their 5G networks, and it looks as though the U.K. will follow suit. Meanwhile, Merkel and Germany’s export-heavy economy are resisting a ban on Huawei. China is Berlin’s third-largest export market, worth roughly $100 billion a year.
The time is ripe to dispense with the narrative that Trump is undermining NATO and the global democratic alliance. France and Germany, two international powerhouses, are the ones emboldening NATO’s enemies.
Benjamin Weinthal is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow Benjamin on Twitter @BenWeinthal.