German President Horst Koehler visited Afghanistan recently, and defended Germany’s increasingly unpopular decision to be there. On Monday, he resigned. To be sure, the office of the President in Germany is symbolic; he has no real power, power belongs to the Chancellor (currently Angela Merkel). Koehler’s sin was to argue that Germany is a major trading country, and therefore needs to participate in military actions that promote global stability. The uproar over the statement led to his resignation Monday (ironically on the day we were leaving Germany — I only followed a bit of the controversy in the papers there).
The reason he got in trouble was how he talked about interests. He said that Germans “must also understand that in certain cases, in an emergency, military operations are necessary to protect our interests.” He listed jobs, income and trade among those interests.
Most Americans must be shaking their head at this point, perhaps muttering, “well, duh — he stated the obvious, what was controversial?” But both when I did my dissertation and when I wrote my book on German foreign policy I noted that one thing was absent from German discussions of military policy — national interest. Support for the US in the 1991 Iraq war (which was very controversial) focused on moral principles and the evil of Saddam. Support for involvement in Kosovo was based on humanitarian arguments, while the initial involvement in Afghanistan — extremely controversial at the time — was justified by the need to stop al qaeda and terrorism. The idea of going to war for national interest counters everything the Germans learned in the bloody first half of the 20th century.
To be sure, national interest isn’t completely taboo. Within EU political discussions German interests are openly debated and defended. In fact, starting back in the seventies with Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, and increasing in the years after unification, German economic interests became a legitimate concept. It makes sense for Germans to wonder about German interests in joining the Euro, bailing out Greece, or promoting a treaty to try to prevent climate change. The line in the sand is military action. To connect that with national interest is to open up a moral hornets nest.
Simply put: killing others to protect economic interests, oil supplies or material wealth is seen as akin to killing someone for their billfold. You’re murdering strangers in order to improve or protect your standard of living. Since the victims are likely innocents themselves, perhaps conscripted into a foreign army, or defending their homeland, it’s a fundamentally immoral and indefensible act. Wars of this sort are simply legal mass murder; soldiers are paid killers for the state. No matter how you defend it with fancy rhetoric and symbolic honor, it’s not that much different than a mafia hit man, except on a massive scale.
But, of course, that’s not what Koehler meant. Read sympathetically (as I do), he was saying that Germany must participate in helping assure that rogue states and terror organizations do not disrupt the world economy. Germany’s interest in doing that is akin to your and my interest in having our tax dollars to go to police force. Moreover, Germany’s strong support for international law and the UN show a belief that such uses of force should be legal and based in international law. There is no reason to think Koehler was advocating wars of aggression to support the national interest.
Moreover, Germans knew that. Those attacking him knew that he was not advocating a return to the mentality of the pre-1945 era. They instead jumped on his word choice to promote their issue of the day — a desire to leave Afghanistan. Most Germans both left and right think Afghanistan is a lost cause and a waste of life. They also take seriously the growing reports of civilian dead — reports that get much less play in the US. Since Koehler had just been to Afghanistan and was defending the policy, they used the words he used as a way to get at that policy. The means was an ad hominem against Koehler based on a twisting of his words.
Of course, people do this all the time in politics. That’s increasingly the norm, “gotcha games” and short quotes out of context rather than detailed conversation and discussion. Those attacking Koehler were just playing that game to get political advantage and pressure the government to leave Afghanistan. They were themselves surprised and puzzled by the President’s resignation. The thing about a “gotcha game” is that it’s political — it only works if you have political ambitions put in jeopardy by the embarrassment of saying something wrong. Koehler didn’t, and ultimately his response was to say, in essence, “this is stupid, I’m not going to play this game.” So he exited.
I respect that. I’m a bit torn — if you take the responsibility of being President, even if the role is only symbolic, there is an obligation to recognize the political aspect of that role and accept it. Koehler, an economist and former Director General of the IMF, is not a politician. On the other hand, the only power the President has is symbolic, and his resignation over this sends a message about the way political rhetoric is twisted about, perhaps causing Germans to think through the nature of this debate. Also, Koehler was already frustrated with the job — perhaps he realized he wasn’t the right person for this role, and continuing wasn’t good for him or Germany.
In Washington diplomats are shocked — and perhaps this helps them understand why Germany opposed the 2003 Iraq war, and why their continued support in Afghanistan can’t be assumed. And, to be sure, I wish our political culture were similarly distrustful of military force to achieve political ends. However, the substory is how a German President decided that the twisting of words and gotcha games wasn’t worth the effort, causing him to use his power in the one way he could — resign, and send a strong symbolic message.