In the last half of 1987, some 75 US, French, British, Italian, Belgian and Dutch warships steamed into the Persian Gulf in what became the largest peacetime naval operation since World War II. Six NATO countries had joined efforts specifically to police the Gulf, considerably increasing the longstanding but small Western naval presence there. The West German navy helped out by substituting for Belgian and US warships which usually patrol the English Channel and the Mediterranean.

This joint operation was notable not simply for its size. It is significant that it took place at all, given the considerable initial European reluctance to become involved. Six of the most important NATO powers eventually participated — without formally designating it a NATO operation — despite considerable internal opposition to the deployment.

As recently as July 1987, Washington’s strongest allies — Japan, Great Britain, France and West Germany — had declined to increase their involvement in the Persian Gulf by sending or lending minesweepers to the US operation. By August, some of these governments had begun to change their positions. France sent in an aircraft carrier, four frigates (three of them equipped with Exocet missiles), two destroyers and several support ships. Other French forces were in reserve at its naval base in Djibouti and on ships in the Indian Ocean. The first British ships on the scene were two frigates, a destroyer and a support ship. [1] Some two months later, Belgium and the Netherlands sent a joint naval group to conduct minesweeping operations. [2] By late autumn, a contingent from Italy had brought the total number of West European warships in the area close to 25, and the US force had grown from less than half a dozen ships traditionally maintained in the Gulf to nearly 50. [3]

Officially, this unprecedented peacetime buildup was to “protect the freedom of navigation” from Iranian and Soviet threats. On the face of it, this rationale was rather remarkable, since Iraq, not Iran, had initiated attacks on ships in the Gulf and had been responsible for some 65 percent of all attacks. Iran was itself critically dependent on shipping oil through the Gulf, while Iraq could export its crude oil through pipelines across Saudi Arabia and Turkey. And Iraq, not Iran, had attacked the USS Stark, killing 37 US sailors. The Soviet Union had deployed only one frigate and three minesweepers to the Gulf, hardly a threatening force, as Pentagon officials acknowledged to me early in 1988 when they spoke of the relatively poor level of Soviet preparedness and capability in the Gulf area.

European participation in the militarization of the Gulf does not necessarily imply agreement with Washington’s point of view on the region. European governments generally are highly skeptical of US Middle East policy, which they consider confused and counterproductive. The Reagan administration twisted political arms in London, Paris and Bonn to produce support for the US position, if not for its questionable policy. European governments concluded they could not maintain any degree of policy independence or influence on US policies without a military presence there of their own. Some felt it was the necessary price to pay to keep NATO functioning within Europe’s boundaries.

But no one in Europe was surprised when only US warships engaged Iranian forces in combat. Not even the strongly pro-Iraqi French joined the US in firing on Iranian ships. And Ronald Reagan’s old friend Margaret Thatcher privately warned against his confrontational approach during the Venice summit. [4]

The West German Case

West Germany, the strongest economic and conventional military power in Western Europe, provides a useful example of the internal debates which erupted among European political elites over this issue. Since 1983, Washington has pushed Bonn discretely time and again to be more supportive of US policies in the Gulf. [5] In November 1982, the German Federal Security Council (comprising the ministers of defense, foreign affairs and other national security officials) had concluded that the German constitution does not permit the deployment of German troops outside of NATO’s boundaries. [6]

This constitutional excuse served to ward off US pressure for German involvement in out-of-area operations without having to give the real, political reasons for not participating. Many Kohl administration officials, especially those in the foreign office, believed the US Navy deployment in the Gulf to be wrong and even dangerous. In their view, US military pressure against Iran would only help the Iranian leaders consolidate their position internally and further destabilize the regional situation. It would also make diplomatic initiatives towards Iran more difficult, might provoke greater Soviet involvement and could pass the initiative to escalate to the Iranian side. Despite these differences, never made public, the West German government moved closer to supporting US policies in the Gulf during 1987 and 1988. The second half of 1987 witnessed a considerable shift in the official German position, setting off a dispute within the government.

In early June 1987, Kohl administration spokesperson Friedhelm Ost stated again that any deployment of German troops to the Gulf was “illegal” under the German constitution. Just six weeks later, spokespersons for the German defense department and foreign office in Bonn qualified that position, jointly declaring that “regular deployment of the Navy outside the area of NATO would not be possible for reasons of constitutionality.” Rumors began to circulate in Bonn that the government might send a ship to the Gulf for “training purposes.” [7]

Other voices joined the debate: conservative party leader Franz Josef Strauss supported sending the navy to the Gulf as a “symbolic act” to demonstrate support for the US, Britain and France. [8] Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher shot back the next day with a reminder that Chancellor Kohl was adhering to the constitutional position which did not permit troops to be sent. A defense department spokesperson formally turned down a US request for minesweepers. [9]

But the government was already waffling. On the same day, still another spokesperson explained that while “direct deployment” of the navy would indeed be illegal, that did not rule all deployment out of the question. By July, the debate had shifted significantly: deployment out-of-area had moved from forbidden to “controversial.” [10] A carefully-timed article appeared in the prestigious conservative daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung just when Defense Minister Manfred Worner was meeting with Pentagon officials in Washington. It argued in detail that constitutional law did not in fact exclude deployment of troops outside the official NATO area. [11]

A second, parallel debate took up the question of how Germany could support the US and NATO allies in the Gulf without actually sending the German navy into the fray. While Bonn continued to refuse US requests for direct help in the Gulf, it suggested a new “division of labor” between allies. At the Venice summit in June 1987, Chancellor Kohl offered to send German ships to the Atlantic to free US ships to police the Gulf. [12]

Within days, a German defense department spokesman was trying hard to limit the scope of the German offer: he was “skeptical” about the capability of the German navy — a total of only 16 frigates and destroyers — to deploy to the Atlantic. Such a transfer would strain its ability to carry out its “primary function” — “the control of the approaches of the North Sea and the Baltic Sea.” [13]

In late July, US Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger increased the pressure by directly asking the West German government to send minesweepers to the Gulf. [14] Bonn once again turned down the request — some called it a “demand” — but the debate heated up. The German defense ministry declared in early August that any further naval deployments in the Atlantic or the Mediterranean would “weaken its current NATO contribution.” The German Navy already had one minesweeper in the Channel and a destroyer in the Atlantic, and additional ships were scheduled for regular deployments abroad for training. The ministry was considering strengthening existing deployments in support of the US and its NATO partners, but “more than that there wouldn’t be much support to offer the US.” [15]

Temporary Assignments

Conservatives within the government soon pushed the German position closer to what the US wanted. A possible deployment in the Mediterranean (in addition to the Atlantic) was said to be “under review.” Despite direct opposition by the Social Democrats and the Greens, and delaying tactics on the part of various officials, by this time the government had clearly decided to support additional deployments in support of the US. The only remaining questions were when and where. High-ranking navy officers recommended deployments in areas relatively close to traditional operational areas — i.e., the north Norwegian waters, or the western Atlantic. A permanent presence with the US Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean was much less attractive, not so much for logistical reasons but because of potential conflicts with unilateral US interests and policies in the region. [16]

By September, the press was reporting “growing pressure” on the government to send minesweepers into the Gulf or to proceed with compensatory operations. The pressure was not only from US Ambassador Richard Burt and from other NATO governments, but also from within the government’s own Christian Democratic Party. The conservative daily Die Welt reported the “growing unhappiness” of conservative MPs with the cautious, foot-dragging policies of the administration. [17] Still, the conservatives had just won their first victory; the support ship Saar had been sent into the Channel to take the place of the Zinnia, a Belgian ship on its way to the Gulf.

A second victory for the rightwing and for Washington became public in October: the German Navy would participate in a “permanent Mediterranean task force” beginning in April 1988, thus broadening its traditional areas of operation. This deployment would start immediately with the “temporary” assignment of several ships, including a minesweeper and a tender, to join in exercises with the “NATO Naval On-Call Force Mediterranean” and then continue other operations until mid-December. This “temporary” participation with other Western navies in southern waters was almost immediately expanded to include a destroyer, a frigate and a support ship. Bonn portrayed German participation as compensation for redeployed NATO ships in the Gulf and a demonstration of “solidarity” with other NATO governments. [18]

In late November a defense ministry spokesperson announced that the West German navy was prepared to continue its “temporary” operations in the Mediterranean: one destroyer, three frigates and two support ships would operate there through June 1988, at least part of that time under direct NATO command. [19] By this time, the German Navy had committed a quarter of its destroyers and frigates to southern waters, once considered out of bounds for West German operations.

This latest German policy change may have been prompted by a communication just a few days earlier from Lieut. Gen. Dale A. Vesser, Director for Strategic Planning with the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Vesser demanded more military and political support from Bonn, including logistical assistance, additional infrastructure, and willingness to provide medical and humanitarian aid and to invoke the controversial “Wartime Host Nation Support Treaty” in case of a crisis. He specifically requested “compensation for US frigates being redeployed from the Mediterranean Sea to the Gulf” and one or more additional German ships for the Mediterranean “to demonstrate solidarity and support” for the US. [20]

Another factor that undoubtedly played a part was a secret defense ministry study ordered by then-Defense Minister Worner and completed in early November 1987. The study concluded that sending German warships into a battle zone in the Gulf or other out-of-NATO-areas was not necessarily unconstitutional. It even, postulated scenarios of direct German military involvement in the Gulf. The study’s purpose was to effectively end the longstanding — but eroding — consensus in the government that such deployments were illegal. [21]

West German involvement continued to deepen, pushing liberal opponents aside, despite public opinion polls which found that 87 percent of the population opposed out-of-area deployments, specifically mine sweepers to the Gulf. [22] But opposition parties in parliament were not very effective opponents and this public sentiment was mostly unorganized. By early 1988, the government discussed involving the West German military outside the NATO area as participants in a UN “peacekeeping force” as a means to lower this public resistance to out-of-area operations. Only Foreign Minister Genscher and the Greens dissented; the Social Democrats are split on the issue.

The government missed its April target for establishing a “permanent” task force (as of early fall 1988 this project was still under discussion by top officials). But by June the mood had so changed that Heinrich Lummer, far rightwing deputy for the Christian Democratic Party, was able to openly demand direct Germany naval deployment to the Gulf. He and “many colleagues” were no longer satisfied with the current policy, he said, and “protest notes from the foreign office are not enough to guarantee the security of German ships.” [23] The new defense minister (and prominent constitutional lawyer) Rupert Scholz tried to appease the conservative critics within his own party by replying that “nothing in the constitution makes [such deployments] illegal.”

Official West German policy had crumbled in the space of a year. The two pillars of its original policy — that out-of-area deployments were unconstitutional, and that in any case they would overextend the small German navy — had been abandoned. Initially Bonn had been reluctant to become involved in what was widely perceived as an adventurous and badly-designed US policy, yet did not want to risk offending the US. The Kohl administration had tried to reduce the debate to military and legal technicalities to avoid any public political criticism of US Middle East policy. What was supposed to be a deployment in the western Atlantic ended up in the Mediterranean Sea. What was supposed to be “temporary” ended up looking suspiciously permanent. And the key constitutional argument proved useless when important sectors of the Christian Democratic Party simply “reinterpreted” the constitution and the defense ministry chimed in with its secret study. As of August 1988, the German government was still trying to minimize the extent of German involvement, but it had run out of arguments, and still did not dare broach the real reasons, the political reasons, for its skepticism about US policy.



[1] Neue Zuricher Zeitung, July 31,1987 and July 29,1988; and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, July 30, 1987.
[2] “Der lange Marsch zur Golf-Region: Belgier und Niederlander im gemeinsamen Flotten-Einsatz,” Europaische Wehrkunde, December 1987, pp. 683-684.
[3] Jochen Hippler, "US Politik im Golfkrieg," in Blatter des iz3w, December 1987, pp. 23-30.
[4] The Observer (London), July 5, 1987.
[5] Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, July 30, 1987.
[6] Der Spiegel, August 3, 1987, p. 31.
[7] Associated Press, June 8,1987; Deutsche Presseagentur, July 22, 1987 [emphasis added].
[8] Deutscher Depeschen Dienst, July 26, 1987.
[9] Deutsche Presseagentur, July 29, 1987.
[10] Deutsche Presseagentur, August 5, 1987.
[11] Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, August 4, 1987.
[12] Frankfurter Rundschau, June 9, 1987.
[13] Die Welt, June 10, 1987; Silddeutsche Zeitung, June 13, 1987.
[14] Silddeutsche Zeitung, July 30, 1987.
[15] Reuters, August 2, 1987.
[16] Deutscher Depeschen Dienst, August 5, 1987.
[17] Die Welt, September 24, 1987.
[18] Deutsche Presseagentur Cable, October 8, 1987; AP Cable, October 15, 1987.
[19] Deutsche Presseagentur Cable, November 29,1987; AP Cable, January 2,1988; Deutsche Presseagentur Cable, January 10, 1988.
[20] Der Spiegel, October 23, 1987, p. 16.
[21] Der Spiegel, November 30, 1987, p. 19.
[22] Stern, November 26, 1987.
[23] Deutscher Depeschen Dienst Cable, June 18, 1988.

How to cite this article:

Jochen Hippler "NATO Goes to the Persian Gulf," Middle East Report 155 (November/December 1988).

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