The annual Munich Security Conference is regularly the scene for the complaints of American official and semiofficial participants deploring Europe’s failure “to pull its weight” in defense, “free-riding” on American efforts, and failing to spend more money on trans-Atlantic arms purchases. Instead they spend money on their own-make arms and military aircraft, such as the French Rafale and EADS’ Eurofighter, which they sell to such overseas markets as India that might otherwise buy American.

Courtesy restrains the European participants from asking what the threat is, against which Europe is being defended by the United States. The complaint reasonable Americans usually make in this matter is that the U.S. is massively over-armed against any existing or plausible future threat to the United States itself.

Surely 11 nuclear carrier groups with accompanying support is not required to fight the remnants of al-Qaida, nor have they proven decisive against the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Western Europe is modestly and inexpensively armed because its governments perceive only very modest threats to their national security, nearly all of them appropriately dealt with by police and other civilian agencies. The Europeans make combat airplanes, ships and other high-technology military equipment, because on occasion they need them — as in the Libyan intervention, the Falklands affair and Afghanistan — and to maintain their design capacity and technological and industrial means to manufacture such things in quantity should they ever be needed, and because they can be profitably exported.

Stephen Hadley, a former official in ex-Vice President Dick Cheney’s office, said in Munich that Europe must spend more if it wants to be a global player. The Europeans regard the George W. Bush administration record, and now the Obama administration’s, and see the results of “global playing”: Iraq in wreckage and under Iran’s sway, Egypt and Turkey hostile to the United States, Israel claiming to live in fear for its national existence, and the NATO war in Afghanistan being lost.

On Afghanistan, Washington is taking stumbling steps toward accommodation with the Taliban. An American diplomat is now in Qatar “to prepare the ground” for “preliminary negotiations” with the Taliban. The government of Hamid Karzai has repeatedly threatened to expel American troops and operations from his country, and the United States and Pakistan, and its army, are at swords-drawn.

The decision of France to end joint combat operations with Afghan troops in training, which followed the murder on Jan. 20 of four French soldiers, and the wounding of others, by an Afghan infiltrator at a base in northeastern Afghanistan, has jolted the American government into an apparent reappraisal of the outlook there.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced last week that U.S. forces will cease their leading role in combat operations by mid-2013 (although it wants permanent bases in that country — a face-saving ambition it also had, but was refused, in present-day Iraq).

Afghan security forces, with or without foreign trainers, are supposed to number some 400,000 by late 2013. Few outside Mr. Panetta’s office — or the White House — believe that Afghan security forces will be any more capable of defeating the Taliban in 2013-14 than they are today.

Indeed, why can’t they defend themselves now? There are more than 31 million people in Afghanistan. The Taliban movement is their creation, nobody else’s — whatever the maneuvers of the Pakistani ISI agency. With arms from abroad, the Taliban defeated the Soviet occupation. They are now apparently on the way to defeating the American occupation. This must be taken into account by all those who believe that the United States and other Western nations have a duty to intervene in non-Western countries to impose or defend friendly governments, or as in Afghanistan, to determine the outcome of a civil struggle (between elements of the Pashtun ethnic population and what once was the Northern Alliance, composed mainly of Tajiks and Hazaras).

It is usual for Americans to say we defend “democratic governments,” but that is not usually the case. This admirable principle usually reduces to defending client governments, for motives that have to do with American national or NATO interests.

There is, however, a principle of proportionality involved, and a duty of candor. The issue of proportionality requires weighing the harm being done to the people of the client-state or ally, and also to the civil population of all the states involved in a struggle, against the good that can reasonably be expected to come from the intervention. How many innocent people were killed, mutilated or their lives ruined in the course of Washington’s Iraq intervention?

No one knows because the side that initiated the war does not wish to have the total known, and so deliberately ignores or minimizes civilian deaths. The other side, with their supporters and friends, does their best to maximize losses. The estimates of fatal casualties go from several hundred thousand to more than 1 million. Either is disproportionate to the result. How many are going to die or be grievously harmed in Afghanistan?

Afghanistan has never done anything to harm Americans. The Taliban government in 2001 refused to deliver up Osama bin Laden; this was an issue of honor in their civilization. That did not harm Americans; it merely inconvenienced them. However, the U.S. sent in the B-52s. Even now, with bin Laden dead, the U.S. — and NATO — won’t quit taking revenge on the Taliban. That is the way of global players.

Visit William Pfaff’s website for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy” (Walker & Co., $25), at

© 2012 Tribune Media Services, Inc.


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