Frau Flip-Flop

How Angela Merkel went from pro-nukes to no-nukes.

Germany's decision this week to turn its back on nuclear power by 2022 and embrace a future fueled by renewable energy may have been historic, but it was hardly the product of a political visionary. German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrived at this achievement almost despite herself, and only by means of a conspicuous and careening political U-turn. Although the new nuclear policy is a real cause for celebration for Germans, Merkel, try as she might, can't plausibly bask in the limelight: In the words of German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, "It's as if the pope were suddenly advocating the use of birth control pills."

In keeping with the rest of her tenure as chancellor of Germany, Merkel's scrapping of nuclear energy has been stumbling and reactive, not confident and bold. In Europe, Germany's goodbye to the atom -- as the world's fourth-largest industrial nation -- is being compared in its political magnitude to reunification at the end of the Cold War. But while Helmut Kohl's deliberate diplomacy in 1990 secured him a place in history -- and two more terms in office -- Merkel is suffering miserably at the polls and in the press.

Indeed, it's impossible for political opponents and the media to resist pointing out that her conservative coalition's new stance on nuclear energy amounts to a drastic volte-face on one of its signature electoral platforms: Merkel's latest plan directly contradicts a law passed just six months earlier, designed to extend the operating lives of Germany's nuclear energy facilities by up to 14 years.

No, it wasn't foresight or vision behind the new policies, but desperation. In the face of overwhelming public skepticism of nuclear power in the wake of Japan's Fukushima disaster, a Green Party topping Merkel's Christian Democrats in regional elections, and an anti-nuclear energy movement mobilizing hundreds of thousands in the streets, Merkel believed she had no other choice. The real kudos go to Germany's tenacious anti-nuclear opponents, who over four decades never wavered from their insistence that nuclear power had no future in Germany. Unsurprisingly, the environmentalists who are cautiously sizing up the newly accelerated phase-out aren't tempted to give Merkel a smidgen of credit for something she and her conservative party long resisted.

Merkel latest policy shift has thus put her government in a quandary, sacrificing the wishes of her coalition's conservative base -- and, critically, the powerful nuclear energy lobby in southern Germany -- without plausibly picking up any new voters from elsewhere on the political spectrum. Were national elections held today, her conservative-liberal alliance would be trounced, and rightfully so. A share of the blame certainly goes to the Christian Democrats' junior partner, the Free Democrats, whose missteps and unhappy figure in the foreign ministry, Guido Westerwelle, have contributed to the free fall of the coalition's popularity. But Merkel's flimsy leadership and singular lack of vision are the real grounds for the crisis. It has become impossible to decipher what Merkel really believes in, a puzzle reflected in her administration's meager record.

It seems an eternity ago that Merkel won Germans' hearts and votes. Kohl took her under his wing in the 1990s, but it was Merkel, and Merkel alone, who made the most of her opportunity in a Catholic, male-dominated, thoroughly West German party that direly needed modernizing. Merkel stood out in every way: an East German, female, Protestant, professional, twice-married, childless physicist. In contrast with Germany's traditional alpha-male politicos, her unglamorous style, straight talk, and down-to-earth manner were a welcome relief. Her unique biography and outsider status made her the perfect person to sweep aside cobwebbed thinking and challenge the interests that were blocking reform in her party and the republic at large.

But that was then. Since taking the country's top office in 2005, she has flip-flopped so many times that her twists and turns have become impossible to keep track of. Candidate Merkel originally ran on a radical free-market platform that went over so badly with voters that Gerhard Schröder's Social Democrats very nearly snatched victory from the jaws of certain defeat six years ago. Thereafter, Merkel became overnight a convincing spokesperson for the social welfare state, even reversing some of the Social Democrats' more dramatic liberalizing reforms.

And then there was Merkel the "Climate Chancellor," who as European Council president in 2008 boxed through tough carbon dioxide emissions standards for the continent. In no time, though, she was pushing through exceptions for Germany's auto industry, producer of Europe's most notorious gas guzzlers.

So too on other EU affairs. Merkel was briefly heralded for her pro-Europe convictions, as the legitimate heir of her mentor Kohl. But in dealing with the European financial crisis, her instinct has been to play to Germany's id, rather than its superego. Her recent broadside about southern Europeans' early retirement ages and long vacations -- in other words, their laziness -- went over well in Germany's tabloid press, precisely because they fanned the latent anti-EU sentiments smoldering in the country. A truly worthy heir of Kohl would have explained to the average burgher in plain-speak that Germany profits enormously from exports to southern Europe and the European Union in general. At a time when the German economy is booming, this should have been possible -- and would have boosted Germany into the role of EU guarantor rather than priming it to view Europe as its adversary.

Nor has Merkel's foreign policy displayed consistency that hints at any bigger-picture plan. When in the opposition, she took Schröder's left-leaning "Red-Green" government to task for spurning the U.S.-led coalition on Iraq. Yet when it came to aiding the Libyan rebels trying to overthrow Muammar al-Qaddafi -- a mission considerably less dodgy than ousting Saddam Hussein in 2003 -- Berlin opted to sit it out, for reasons no one in Merkel's government can quite explain. It's no wonder that U.S. President Barack Obama flew straight over Germany on his recent trip to Europe, an unprecedented snub in the history of transatlantic relations. Since Europe's most powerful woman took office, Germany has undeniably lost clout in the international arena, and its dreams of a permanent U.N. Security Council seat are now pure fantasy.

Merkel's fans call her a pragmatist, one not keen to fight losing battles and with an appetite for sniffing out political consensus. The flip-flop on nuclear energy, say these admirers, is another example of how she can employ her ideological flexibility to defend her party's gains in a hostile political landscape. According to this theory, Merkel was smart enough not only to recognize that her energy policies in the wake of Fukushima were no longer tenable, but also that the implosion of the Free Democrats has made the reelection of her coalition a near impossibility. The only chance for Merkel to remain chancellor after 2013, then, is as head of a Christian Democrat-Green coalition. Even though the Greens have condemned the conditions of Merkel's nuclear pullout plan as inadequate, a "Nein, danke" to nuclear power is a nonnegotiable precondition for a "black-green" coalition, the likes of which have already popped up in smaller German cities and states. Some observers even say she has cleverly stolen the left-wing opposition's trump card and will win back voters by making Germany a model for clean, energy-efficient states with a thriving trade in solar panels and wind turbines. Finally, a vision! Even if it's not hers.

But it's hard to believe that Merkel can credibly reinvent herself again as the "ecology chancellor" and simply follow the path of least resistance to another term in office. In fact, her dramatic confirmation of Green policies will probably put wind in the sails of the original environmental party, cementing its status as a viable alternative to both the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats. What Merkel may well have done is pave the way for the first-ever Green chancellor in 2013, as head of a ruling coalition like the one currently in the southwestern region of Baden-Württemberg. If this happens, Merkel will certainly be a chancellor for the German history books, if not in the way she may have wished.

Michael Kappeler/DPA


Obama's Illegal War

Libya is important, but the U.S. Constitution is ultimately what we're fighting for.

The bombing campaign in Libya continues into its 72nd day without the consent of the U.S. Congress -- breaking the 60-day limit for unilateral presidential war-making. With the Justice Department providing no public explanation for this breach, lawmakers are beginning to take matters into their own hands.

On Wednesday, June 1, the House of Representatives delayed a vote on a resolution insisting that President Barack Obama bring the Libya mission to a speedy close; but expectations are that the measure will be reconsidered on Friday. The Senate, for its part, will soon take up a bipartisan measure supporting the war. Meanwhile, with no U.S. domestic debate, NATO has announced it will continue its operations in Libya for another 90 days.

We are at a constitutional crossroads, similar to the one the United States confronted in 1973 when Congress enacted the War Powers Resolution, which set the 60-day limit, over Richard Nixon's veto. The Constitution famously grants Congress the power to declare war, but Nixon continued to fight in Vietnam for three years after Congress had withdrawn the Gulf of Tonkin resolution authorizing the conflict.

Faced with this plain constitutional violation, Congress acted decisively to restore the system of checks and balances. For centuries, the president and Congress had wrangled over the kind of actions that counted as a "war" for constitutional purposes, with presidents exploiting legal ambiguities to cut Congress out of key decisions. The act broke this impasse by imposing a time limit on all "hostilities" -- a functional term meant to eliminate legalistic evasions the White House had developed over what counted as "war." Henceforward, the 60-day deadline would apply whenever the president began "hostilities," and if he failed to gain congressional approval, the act gave him 30 days to terminate the military operation.

This clear and simple 60/30-day setup is especially important at a time when other restraints on presidential war-making have atrophied. During the era of the Founding Fathers, Congress could back up its constitutional authority with its power of the purse. For example, when President George Washington responded to military defeats on the frontier by escalating the conflict, he got Congress to give him $532,449.76 and 2/3 cents for his war -- note the 2/3 cents!

It's a lot harder to do so now. The Libya campaign has already cost three-quarters of a billion dollars, and yet Obama hasn't had to ask Congress for a dime. He has funded the war entirely out of the general $600 billion appropriated to the Defense Department.

This leaves the time limit as the only effective mechanism for preserving the Founders' commitment to congressional control. Unlike with many other areas of law, the courts can't be counted on to translate abstract principles into concrete rules. So far as war-making is concerned, they have left it to the political branches to work the matter out -- which is precisely the purpose of the War Powers Resolution.

The Justice Department explicitly endorsed the constitutionality of the time-limit provisions in 1980, and presidents have abided by them ever since. When Ronald Reagan's multinational peacekeeping operation in Lebanon broke out into clear "hostilities," Congress passed -- and Reagan signed -- the first legislation expressly invoking the War Powers Resolution authorizing U.S. troops to remain for 18 months. Similarly, Bill Clinton gained a special appropriation from Congress within the first 60 days of his bombing campaign in Kosovo. And George W. Bush gained explicit congressional consent before launching the Afghanistan and Iraq wars -- as did his father at the time of the first Gulf War.

Obama's action is unprecedented. After notifying Congress that he had begun "hostilities," the president did absolutely nothing to gain congressional consent until Friday, May 20 -- just hours before the 60-day clock ran out. He then sent a letter to the House and Senate asking for their support, leaving it to Jay Carney, his press secretary, to explain that he "believes that he has acted … consistent with the War Powers Resolution … and that's all I'm going to say about it."

But actions speak louder than press secretaries. Even though the time limit set by the War Powers Resolution has expired, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently admitted that "the United States continues to fly 25 percent of all sorties. We continue to provide the majority of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets. We continue to support all of our allies in their efforts." The United States continues, in short, to be involved in precisely the kind of "hostilities" that the War Powers Resolution is meant to control.

The president has the constitutional responsibility to "take care that the Laws" -- all the laws -- "be faithfully executed." The fate of Libya is important, but that is no excuse for ignoring the U.S. Constitution and the rule of law. Obama should belatedly heed the War Powers Resolution and press Congress to move quickly so that he can legalize the war within the 30-day deadline for terminating military action established by the act. This is the only way to keep faith with the Founders' commitment to checks and balances and to protect Americans against future presidential war-making without broad popular support.

Alex Wong/Getty Images