Germany’s Lesson for America: Wars of Necessity, Not Choice

June 12, 2010 • Commentary
This article appeared on The Huffington Post on June 12, 2010.

For many, probably most, statesmen war is just another policy option. A government can apply diplomatic pressure. It can impose sanctions. It can launch a military attack.

The U.S. is a democracy and Americans like to think of themselves as setting a moral standard for the world. Yet since the end of the Cold War no country has more promiscuously used military force. Few of the conflicts presented even the barest claim of “defense” as justification. Most were simply wars of choice, used to advance one policy end or another.

American officials demonstrated a surprising lack of concern about the consequences of unleashing death and destruction upon other lands. The public tended to treat most wars, at least initially, like live video games,

But attitudes are different in the two nations which did the most to cause World War II and suffered the most as the conflict ground them underfoot. Pacifism remains particularly strong in Japan, the only country to suffer from the actual use of atomic bombs.

Military intervention remains controversial in Germany as well. Only recently has Berlin begun to deploy German troops overseas. Many Germans oppose giving NATO an “expeditionary” function.

In late May German President Horst Koehler visited Afghanistan, where he gave a radio interview in which he observed: “A country of our size, with its focus on exports and thus reliance on foreign trade, must be aware that… military deployments are necessary in an emergency to protect our interests — for example, when it comes to trade routes, for example when it comes to preventing regional instabilities that could negatively influence our trade, jobs and incomes.”

That comment would be unexceptional for an American politician to make. Secretary of State James Baker pointed to access to oil and protection of jobs as reasons to attack Iraq in the first Persian Gulf War. Many U.S. military interventions have had at least a partial economic justification.

But Koehler found out that Germany is not America. Criticism was sharp and spanned the political spectrum. He was accused of promoting “gun‐​boat diplomacy” and undermining the German constitution, which speaks only of defending Germany. Friendlier critics denounced his “awkward” rhetoric. The idea of Germans becoming “soldiers of international trade” did not go over well.

Under political siege Koehler complained that he was not shown the respect proper for a head of state and quit. The contretemps proved to be an extraordinary embarrassment for Chancellor Angela Merkel. He was a member of her party and she might lose the upcoming parliamentary vote to choose his successor.

Some Americans found the spectacle to be evidence of geopolitical immaturity. Journalist Clayton M. McCleskey complained: “Mr. Koehler found himself isolated, a lonely leader attempting to push Germany to recognize the reality of its place in the world.” Maybe, though it’s entirely appropriate for citizens to demand that their leaders provide good reasons — better than those typically offered in the U.S. — for marching off to war.

In fact, America desperately needs a serious debate about when it should resort to war. Maintaining trade routes by protecting the freedom of the seas is a traditional national objective, but they normally are threatened only in broader conflicts, such as World Wars I and II. President Koehler claimed his comment on protecting trade routes referred to anti‐​piracy patrols near Somalia, but the latter don’t compare to combat in Afghanistan.

Economics is a dubious justification for any war unless national survival is at stake. A country shouldn’t start bombing other nations because it fears a modest spike in the unemployment rate or even a hefty rise in gasoline prices. Trade is good, but not good enough if it can only be conducted through war.

Anyway, economics has nothing to do with the Afghanistan conflict. To fight there in order to prevent Koehler’s second concern, “regional instabilities that could negatively influence our trade, jobs and incomes,” would make even less sense than normally comes out of the mouths of politicians.

Instability is a global reality. But instability in most countries and regions doesn’t much matter to large and prosperous Western states. Instability in Afghanistan and elsewhere in Central Asia has little impact on the U.S. and Europe.

Certainly no Western nation is going to have to worry about its “trade, jobs and incomes” as a result of conflict in Afghanistan. That tragic nation has been roiled by war for decades. U.S. intervention in 2001 sparked another major flare‐​up of combat.

Even if America or its allies did worry about an adverse economic impact, that would not justify nearly nine years of war, with no end in sight. Interest is a necessary but not sufficient justification for war. There needs to be moral right as well as a reasonable chance of success.

The former was present with Washington’s decision to defenestrate the Taliban regime after it hosted al‐​Qaeda. But it’s impossible to justify coercive nation‐​building, which usually does more to promote than discourage terrorism, in the same way. Although there are plenty of dedicated Afghans seeking to build a decent society, the Karzai government rarely represents them. No matter how well the American military performs and the Afghan military is trained, people will have little reason to die for the Karzai government.

Thus, success looks increasingly improbable — at least at reasonable cost in reasonable time. The notion of sacrificing tens of thousands of lives, both allied and Afghan, and spending hundreds of billions of dollars in a supposed humanitarian crusade is dubious enough in theory. It is worse in practice.

At a meeting with U.S. personnel in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal recently acknowledged the problem of civilian deaths at checkpoints: “We’ve shot an amazing number of people and killed a number and, to my knowledge, none has proven to have been a real threat to the force.” He added that he knew of no case when “we have engaged in an escalation of force incident and hurt someone has it turned out that the vehicle had a suicide bomb or weapons in it.” This is a humanitarian conflict?

But to engage in all of this in order to protect “trade, jobs and incomes” would be particularly offensive, as the Germans realized. It should be considered outrageous even in America.

War is an ugly reality. As long as people are human we are unlikely to eliminate the practice. But we can reduce its incidence.

And since America is more likely today, at least, than any other nation to resort to the use of force, it has a special opportunity and responsibility to think more critically before resorting to arms. In this regard the Germans have something to teach the U.S.

War should be a last resort, used only when necessary to promote essential ends. Fighting terrorism is such an end but even then war is rarely an effective means.

There should be no more wars of choice, no matter how quick and easy they are expected to be. Ease of victory is not enough to make might right. And, as we learned in both Iraq and Afghanistan, war is rarely the cakewalk that it is often advertised to be. War should not be just another policy option.

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