Afghanistan and the West The Difficult Relationship between Democracy and War

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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?

Flawed Arguments

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

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MobiusPrime 07/08/2010
1. To Stay or not To Stay
Being of German ancestry, and proud of it, I try to appreciate the confusion facing the German People and their abhorrence of military actions. As a Proud Citizen of the United States I too am hesitant to condone military intervention in situations that on the surface appear to be contrary to the peace of the world. The participation of the German People (Military & Civilian) in the Afghan war on terror is necessary and Appreciated by all Anti Terrorist People of the Civilized Word. Civilized is the Key Word. Make no mistake, Their hatred is focused on the Christian Jewish Countries of the world. The Extremist of the Islamic People are sworn to destroy western cultures including Germany's Democracy, The Germany People , standing side by side with the NATO countries and the Unites States have to stay united. Unfortunately the Radicals have subverted the Islamic faith and are sworn to destroy You & Us. This war in Afghanistan is only the beginning of their cult to rule the world and wipe out Democratic Cultures. They will not succeed unless the individual countries are divide. Look at Britain, they have actually allowed Sharia Law courts to exist in their country. The UK is lost , Will Germany /France /Spain/US etc be next? Stay the course in Afghanistan, as abhorrent as it is, or Parrish.
verbatim128 07/09/2010
2. Why Democracy and War?
One would hope that some societal evolution has occurred since the 5th century BC and the Greek democracy, although I am not sure that our modern democracy is part of that evolution. But to assign "a relationship" between democracy and war, albeit calling that a difficult relationship, and justifying the war in Afghanistan by stretching a comparison with the Athenians having to defend against the Persian attacks, now that is a fallacy of argument. It appears to me that the essay is attempting to find reason in an outcome which has a) not been reasonably considered from the start and b) not been pursued in a reasonable manner. The author is also trying hard, though in a confused conciliatory fashion, to reconcile those terrible a) and b) shortcomings without addressing them, with the public opinion of Germans which he grudgingly admits is against continuing the war. Some sort of argument that the effort is not wasted, but worth it. For good measure and to justify calling this piece an essay, the author muddles the issue by introducing the philosophical relationship of this war and democracy, when in fact all that needs done is to ask: Was the war right? Every time an outcome begs the question as an afterthought, 'Was it worth it?', you can guess that something was dead wrong with the action. In fact the question ought to have been up front, "Is it right, will it be worth it?," and aimed before the action got underway, at it, as well as, the foreseeable outcome. But if we must ask after the fact-- always better late than never-- the question needs to be : "Was it right? Did it accomplish what was right?". That way chances are we learn something. If it wasn't right to begin with , never mind whether it was worth it, in some twisted fashion, like in a bargain we imagine we got. It still is not right.
kashiwa 07/12/2010
3. Make no mistake
Like many others I am very grateful to live in a country that has overcome nationalism and in which, in contrary to the United States, war is not a legitimate political tool. Most Germans have no illusions whatsoever about the essential nature of war. They share their insight with the countless pacifists around the world who took to the streets in 2003 and tragically could not prevent the violent death the war of the Western coalition brought upon more than one million Iraqis*. So is the terror of war. It is easy to understand that none of the two wars the West has waged against muslem countries in the last decade have likely undermined islamic extremism. The Taliban who have fiercly fought the 'International Security Assistance Force' for the last eight years are Afghans, who have not organized international Islamic terrorist attacks. From their point of view they fight the invader of their territories and his 'nation building' efforts strategically aimed at undermining Afghanistan's traditional social, political and economic structures and establishing a 'civilised' order. A state is democratic if it makes democratic politics - political decisions made have to be supported by the majority of the country's population. The war against Afghanistan has no majority in Germany and Germany's participation is therefor simply illegitimate. Unlike Islamist extremists who represent a fraction of the largely peaceful and welcoming Muslim populations around the world (why not go vist and talk to the people in Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Egypt and elsewhere?) such undemocratic, violent politics and their supporters pose a real threat to Western societies - and to everbody else. Nie wieder Krieg! War - never again! *http://www.globalpolicy.org/iraq/humanitarian-issues-in-iraq/mortality-.html
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