Angela Merkel, the leader of the democratic world, doesn’t think murdering children with chemical weapons is sufficient reason for a military attack on Syria. “Germany will not take part in military action,” the chancellor said Thursday. “But we will support and see to it that every effort is being made to show that this use of chemical weapons is unacceptable.”
But what might this “effort” include? And what does “unacceptable” mean? Apparently not much aside from empty rhetoric.
Merkel, who in recent years has portrayed herself as a model of stable, pragmatic, judicious and responsible leadership (in a sea of disturbed, unstable and extremist leaders), still clings to outdated pacifist values on this issue. These are values Germany adopted after its defeat in World War II, but they are no longer appropriate.
Seventy years after the Holocaust, Merkel evidently considers pacifism more important than children being murdered with gas. In the name of this lofty value, she can continue to hide her head in the sand while a mad dictator slaughters his own citizens – anything to avoid mistakenly spilling unnecessary blood and getting her hands dirty in the Mideast mud.
In so doing, Merkel is turning her back on a-no-less important principle – the “responsibility to protect,” an idea pushed by former German President Joachim Gauck. This principle holds that the international community must protect the people of countries like Syria against atrocities committed by their own governments. But such protection via military intervention isn’t just physical. It also protects universal values, the kind for which Germany was supposed to be the standard-bearer.
Merkel isn’t alone. It would be very hard to mobilize support in the German parliament for military intervention in any overseas conflict, and especially for the emerging coalition against Syria. From across the political spectrum, denunciations have instead poured forth against another leader, U.S. President Donald Trump, for what Germans term his “irresponsible threats” on Twitter against the Assad regime in Syria and its Russian ally.
A few years ago there were harbingers of change on this sensitive, complex issue of German military involvement in overseas conflicts. In a parliamentary speech, Merkel said the “policy of restraint” would change and the guiding principle would now be “responsibility toward Europe and the world.”
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But anyone expecting to see German pilots bombing Islamic State targets in the Middle East were disappointed. In Merkel’s view, increased German involvement doesn’t necessarily mean military involvement.
“This isn’t an issue of the degree of military involvement, it’s a question of the exertion of diplomatic influence by a key state like Germany,” she said. “There’s never one single solution. There’s no dispute in the world that can be solved exclusively by military means.”
Now, faced with another chemical attack in Syria, the question is where to draw the line. Is it still appropriate for Germany to cling to its policy of solving conflicts exclusively through diplomatic means? Hasn’t the time come for Germans to have a serious, difficult discussion on this position?
Four years ago, at the opening of the Munich Security Conference, then-President Gauck tried to challenge Germany on this issue. In his speech, he said that now that Germany was strong, stable and prosperous, it was time to reconsider its foreign and defense policy that was characterized by restraint and adapt it to the challenges of the modern world. Sometimes it would even be necessary to send soldiers, he added.
Yes, Germany has sent soldiers to various places around the world, but at least officially, they weren’t there to fight but for ancillary tasks that sound better to German ears like “peacekeeping” and “logistical aid.”
Thus even when the West tried to mobilize a broad coalition against the Islamic State in 2015, following the murderous terror attacks in Paris, Germany sufficed with sending refueling and spy planes to assist – but not take part in – airstrikes by other countries against terrorist targets in Syria. This could be viewed as cynicism and a flight from responsibility.
Again, this policy isn’t new. Ever since the end of World War II, when Germany adopted a pacifist constitution, it has generally eschewed military intervention in overseas conflicts. This policy earned widespread support from the German people and still does. And for the initial postwar generations, it was understandable and even justifiable. They had every reason to be suspicious of the German state and distrust its use of military force.
Thus Germany didn’t send troops to Iraq and abstained in the UN Security Council vote that approved airstrikes on Libya in 2011. The exception was Afghanistan, where thousands of German soldiers once deployed.
But as the atrocities of World War II receded further into the past, the pacifist principle that underlay those decisions sometimes became an excuse that some Germans used to justify laziness or isolationism.
Gauck tried to explain to Germans that it was time to change. “When the last resort – sending in the Bundeswehr – comes to be discussed, Germany should not say ‘no’ on principle,” he said, referring to the German army. “In the very last resort, military means can be used, after careful consideration and a weighing up of the consequences.”
Given the chemical attack in Syria, Germans should study Gauck’s courageous moral plea that they “not simply refuse to help others when human rights violations multiply and result in genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing or crimes against humanity.”