Commentary on Political Economy

Saturday 8 June 2019

Once more with feeling: EUROPEANS ARE COWARDS!

A few years into the Afghan war, I had the chance to visit the country at the invitation of the NATO mission there. After a couple of days in Kabul, a small group of us—journalists, think tankers, ex-administration types—were flown out to Herat in the west of the country, close to the Iranian border. There we spent a day observing the work of Italian soldiers in keeping the peace and helping rebuild.
We were due to fly back to Kabul that afternoon, but as we waited at the Herat airfield, it became clear that something was wrong. As night fell, an apologetic public liaison officer from the base informed us that there would be no transport back to the capital that night and we would have to spend the night at the camp.
The Italians were excellent hosts, supplying us with the best food I imagine you could get anywhere in Afghanistan. In his toast to our friends and allies, one of our group quipped that the only real inconvenience was that the prosecco wasn’t chilled to precisely the right temperature.
But as we enjoyed the warm hospitality, we were naturally curious about what had happened. It turned out that we couldn’t return to Kabul because our plane was provided by the German air force, and under the strict rules the German government had negotiated for its troops in Afghanistan, the Luftwaffe wouldn’t fly at night. The government in Berlin was so alarmed about the potential domestic political consequences of Germans being killed or injured in the conflict that they went to extraordinary lengths to keep them out of harm’s way—including forbidding the air force to fly after dark. Let’s just hope nobody told the Taliban. 
I was reminded of this story—and its lessons—this week as I watched the poignant ceremonies in Britain and France to mark the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings. Queen Elizabeth, President Trump, even hapless Theresa May had moving words matched perfectly to the occasion. The heroism of the men—and some women—who fought their way into Nazi-occupied France will stand the test of time as perhaps the most important military triumph in modern history.
The two great evil ideologies of the 20th century were routed by U.S. leadership and mostly loyal allies.
In a wider sense, the symbolism of the leaders of the West coming together in a rare display of unity was just as powerful. A few years after D-Day, these same nations founded NATO, an organization that defended our people and our values against the threat from Soviet Russia—and we know how that ended too. 
The two great evil ideologies of the 20th century were routed by U.S. leadership and mostly loyal allies.
Some pine for the glory days of Atlanticism and worry that their passing heralds the twilight of the West as it falls to the forces of nationalism and angry populism. NATO and its supporters were especially keen on the spectacle of D-Day as a metaphor for what can be achieved by unity in the Western political community. 
But my recollection of that night stranded in a remote base in Afghanistan suggests something different. It was a reminder, first of all, of how much the world has changed since D-Day and the founding of NATO. Seventy-five years ago, the notion that the Luftwaffe was self-prohibited from flying at night would have been greeted with wry amusement by the D-Day veterans or the civilians of London who’d endured the nocturnal terrors of the Blitz just a few years before.
Today our concern is not German aggression but German timidity: the justified frustration that the fourth-richest country on Earth won’t in effect lift a finger to defend the values under which the modern Germany has thrived.
But it was also a reminder that the world and its challenges have changed radically since the Cold War. D-Day and NATO were vital mobilizations for the very survival of Western civilization. Those threats no longer exist and have been replaced by new ones. Fighting endless wars in Afghanistan may have some dividend, but it’s hard to argue seriously that Western liberal values are truly at stake.
Given their advanced age, this was probably the last major commemoration of D-Day at which veterans of the landings will themselves be present, and it’s fitting that we honor them while we still can. But it’s no dishonor to their service and sacrifice to look anew at the risks and opportunities in the world. Clinging to old necessities and outdated verities serves the interests of neither the U.S. nor its partners. Time and change demand new strategic thinking.

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