Earning his stripes - Monocolumn | Monocle


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26 October 2009

One of the few bright appointments the new German government produced during its coalition negotiations – the controversial results of which were announced yesterday – is the country’s future defence minister.

Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, 37, looks back on a brief career as economy minister in Angela Merkel’s last cabinet. Mid-term he had replaced Michael Glos who was worn out by the onslaught of problems caused by the financial crisis. Yet rather unexpectedly – given these difficult circumstances – his young successor won the hearts of Germans within weeks. Guttenberg showed strength when he was the only member of cabinet to openly oppose quick fixes for car-maker Opel, opting instead for a controlled insolvency. The voters warmed to his honesty at a time when other politicians were delivering vague promises while at the same time spending taxpayers’ money like water.

Until his appointment Guttenberg had been unknown on a national level, having worked as general secretary for his Bavarian party Christian Social Union. And suddenly here he was, one of Germany’s most popular politicians. He delivered a relaxed appearance in the country’s biggest TV-show Wetten Dass?, and made the cover of Stern, prompting journalists to joke about Guttenberg having “a star of his own”. He helped his party campaign on the elections but avoided the bitter fights some of his fellow party members engaged in, assuming a confident, almost presidential air instead.

Clearly, here was the new superstar of German politics. His business-school looks with slicked back hair and his classy sounding title of nobility didn’t hurt either. So it came as no surprise that Guttenberg would still be part of the next cabinet. The only problem: this time Merkel governs with the business-friendly liberals (Free Democratic Party) who traditionally claim the post of economy minister. So, rumour in Berlin has it, Guttenberg got to choose between the jobs of interior or defence minister and settled for the latter. But though he speaks fluent English, loves the international stage and has experience in defence, this has not proven to be the easiest option.

First and foremost Guttenberg will have to deal with Afghanistan. Here, 4,500 German troops have long tried to treat their jobs as more of a humanitarian mission, keeping to the formerly quiet north, but are now increasingly involved in combat. Still Guttenberg’s weak predecessor Franz Josef Jung shied away from calling this a war, speaking instead of “deployment” – hair-splitting that did not sit well with the soldiers. After all, some 36 Germans have already died in Afghanistan. In December the Bundeswehr’s mandate has to be extended by parliament. Army officials have already asked for more troops and more civil engagement. At the same time, Guttenberg will have to come up with a timetable for their future withdrawal of troops.

One decision of the new coalition could make his job, and that of German soldiers in conflict areas, even more difficult. As a concession to the liberals who wanted to do away with conscription altogether, Merkel has agreed to reduce the period served from nine months to a merely symbolic six. Military experts say this is too short to give recruits any practical experience.

At the height of his popularity, Guttenberg has to be careful not to let the new job – in the words of his favourite band – be a political Highway to Hell. But chances are that this smart new face in German politics is just the right man for the challenge.


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