It's mostly a symbolic position, not unlike being a modern-day European monarch without the throne and the footmen. State visits, the occasional speech on moral questions of the day, rubber-stamping laws that have been passed by parliament -- the German president's power is limited.
Every now and then, however, President Horst Köhler finds his way into the headlines. This week, he no doubt wishes that was not the case.
The president has become the target of intense criticism following remarks he made during a surprise visit to German soldiers in Afghanistan last Saturday. In an interview with a German radio reporter who accompanied him on the trip, he seemed to justify his country's military missions abroad with the need to protect economic interests.
"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," Köhler said.
'Jeopardizing the Acceptance'
Political reaction to the president's comments has been impassioned, if delayed. Jürgen Trittin, of the Green Party, said on Thursday the president's comments were not consistent with Germany's constitution and that "we don't need gun boat diplomacy nor do we need a loose rhetorical cannon as our head of state." Thomas Oppermann, a parliamentarian with the opposition Social Democrats, told SPIEGEL ONLINE that "Köhler is jeopardizing the acceptance of the German military's missions abroad."
Criticism also came from within Chancellor Angela Merkel's governing coalition. Ruprecht Polenz, the foreign policy spokesman for Merkel's Christian Democrats said "it was not a very successful formulation, to put it mildly." Rainer Stinner, of the business-friendly Free Democrats, Merkel's junior coalition partner, said: "We are not in Afghanistan out of any economic interests, rather we are there to stabilize the country and curtail international terrorism."
Köhler's office on Thursday rejected the criticism, saying that the president was not referring specifically to the Afghanistan mission in his remarks and that the defense of trade routes was specifically mentioned in the mandate for overseas military missions, such as that against pirates off the Horn of Africa.
Still, criticism of Köhler continued in the German editorial pages on Friday.
The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:
"Normally, the German president stands above the mayhem of day-to-day politics. He is expected to provoke fundamental debates, particularly when it comes to war and peace. But Köhler recently travelled to Afghanistan without a single recognizable idea he wanted to communicate, other than encouraging the troops. Upon leaving, he left behind a minor diplomatic scandal because he refused to pay a visit to Afghan President Hamid Karzai. At home, his visit resulted in bewilderment. Does Köhler really agree with the (far left) Left Party, that Germany is merely defending economic interests in Afghanistan? Or did he merely assemble the pieces of a larger strategic debate incorrectly?"
"The result is that Köhler has betrayed all those in German parliament who support the Afghanistan mission -- and also the soldiers in Afghanistan, who have not so far seen themselves as soldiers of international trade. The president's most powerful weapons are his words. When they are used incorrectly, it is dangerous."
Conservative daily Die Welt writes:
"The president deserves credit for his intention to contribute to a new honesty in the debate about Germany's missions abroad. But his nebulous comments during a radio interview were a disservice to both himself and to the German government. His awkward formulation made it seem as though the German military was in Afghanistan to fight a war over trade routes. Securing trade can certainly be in the nation's interest, as is the case with the anti-pirate mission off the Horn of Africa. But the goal of the Afghanistan mission is a different one."
"Horst Köhler is no master of rhetoric, neither in his prepared speeches nor in his off-the-cuff remarks. That is too bad. Worse, it is both ominous and infuriating when the president's rhetorical missteps provide unintentional backing to all those who have always been opposed to Germany fulfilling its international responsibilities."
The left-leaning Berliner Zeitung writes:
"One wonders if it really was just an unfortunate formulation, as the German government would now have us believe. Or whether the economic expert Horst Köhler provided us with a peek inside his own thought process and that of a decisive portion of the Western political elite. Even during the Iraq War, the economic backdrop of the invasion -- sold by President George W. Bush as a freedom offensive -- was hardly discussed, even though access to oil was certainly a motivation. Afghanistan does not possess such raw materials, but securing trade routes can certainly serve hegemony in the region. It is likely that the German president has now unintentionally kicked off a new debate about the war. It will be even more difficult for supporters of the Afghanistan mission to participate successfully in the debate. More than ever, one now expects a clarification from President Horst Köhler."
-- Charles Hawley
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