Afghanistan and the West The Difficult Relationship between Democracy and War
Part 5: The Legitimization: Public Sentiment and Responsibility
It is also part of the essence of a democracy that it may not act against the will of the majority in the long term. It is for this reason that the German government may be forced to withdraw the Bundeswehr, even if there are good reasons to remain in Afghanistan. That too would be an acceptable decision. The legitimization of political action by its citizens is the most important aspect of a democracy. A war, in particular, must be clearly legitimized, because it demands of some citizens the willingness to give their lives.
The war in Afghanistan supposedly lacks legitimacy because two thirds of German citizens are opposed to it. But that is the biggest fallacy in this debate. Germany has a representative democracy, in which politicians stand for election once every four years. In the interim, however, they have free rein within the confines of Germany's constitution and laws. There are good reasons that this is the case, so that public sentiment does not exert excessive influence on political action.
Public sentiment is easy to influence and difficult to gauge. Although opinion polls indicate that a majority of Germans are skeptical about this war, this skepticism has not motivated them to oppose it in significant numbers. This is ironic, because Germany is largely a country of pacifists. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets to protest nuclear power, and tens of thousands demonstrated against America's first Iraq war. Now German soldiers are dying in Afghanistan, but there is no peace movement in a country of peace movements. What, then, is the real public sentiment in Germany?
Even if we knew exactly what it was, public sentiment cannot be the benchmark for politicians. Merkel is often accused of basing her policies too heavily on opinion polls, that is, public sentiment, and this is a reasonable accusation. But she does not do so when it comes to the question of Afghanistan, in which her policies are in fact opposed to alleged public sentiment. But she is also criticized on this front, which suggests that the arguments of her critics are flawed.
Every reasonable person, including Merkel, is fundamentally skeptical toward the war. But she cannot limit her dismay to the fact that German soldiers are dying. She must also find it dismaying, and nevertheless necessary, to have had to accept these sacrifices. In this situation, a politician is confronted with a terrible choice. Protecting her citizens is one of her most important duties. But she must also take into account the global situation, German interests and the relationship with allies -- mainly the United States, in this case. Only then can she conclude that 43 dead Germans are the price the country must pay, or possibly even 100 or 200.
No one wants to have to make such choices, and yet they are necessary, at least as long as Immanuel Kant's perpetual peace is not the prevailing order. Even a pacifist makes such calculations, at least unwittingly. And why does the pacifist object so strenuously to 43 dead, but not to one or five? But only politicians are called upon to make the decisions and bear the ultimate responsibility. Part of representative democracy means leaving the momentous decisions up to the politicians. Only they have the professional detachment needed to make these decisions, which they must then explain to the population.
Comes Up Short
Unfortunately, however, too little was said about the mission in Afghanistan for too long. Politicians wanted to remove the war from public awareness. There were even lies and cover-ups surrounding Colonel Klein's fatal decision. It was a mistake that Afghanistan did not play a role in the 2009 election campaign. The parties that had decided to support the mission were unwilling to commit themselves to it in the campaign. The Christian Democratic Union, the Social Democratic Party and the Free Democratic Party remained silent on the war, because they were afraid that taking a clear position could cost them votes. Many elements within the media also felt that it was the right thing that Afghanistan did not figure in the election campaign. This too was a mistake, as a member of the media can say self-critically. This is an area where the legitimization of the war comes up short.
An argument supporting the silence during the campaign is that a debate could have been detrimental to German soldiers in Afghanistan. But this is a poor argument. The Bundeswehr is the army of a democracy, and contention, not unanimity, is a key element of democracy. Everything is contentious and everything is fair game for dispute. The subject of war cannot be excluded from this. This is something that soldiers, who are citizens in uniform, must endure.
And politicians must be resolute. After the most recent attacks on the Bundeswehr, Merkel clearly committed herself to this mission. It was a commitment that was long in the making, but it remains a commitment nonetheless. And she should not conceal her beliefs in the 2013 campaign. The SPD, for its part, must establish its own clear position on the war by then. This will allow German citizens to make the subject of Afghanistan an important part of their voting decision, and to clearly legitimize the war -- or not. The discussion must remain at the top of the agenda until then, and not just when German soldiers are killed.
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
- Part 1: The Difficult Relationship between Democracy and War
- Part 2: The Beginning:Terror and Solidarity
- Part 3: The Course of Battle: The Beast and its Victims
- Part 4: The End: Aftermath and Innocence
- Part 5: The Legitimization: Public Sentiment and Responsibility