In an interview he gave during his recent visit to the strife-torn country, Köhler appeared to say that the public debate about the war in Afghanistan was gradually facing up to the fact that protecting foreign trade was a legitimate reason for military action.
The remarks from Saturday to broadcaster Deutschlandradio, which have just now been seized on by opposition politicians, have prompted a furious debate about Germany's military deployment – and whether Köhler has damaged the image of the NATO mission in Afghanistan.
Köhler began by saying that Germany was in the country, alongside its allies, to ensure its security and that it was good and proper for these issues to be openly and robustly discussed.
He then added: “But my estimation is that, on the whole, we are on the way to understanding, even broadly in society, that a country of our size, with this orientation toward foreign trade and therefore also dependence on foreign trade, has to be aware that when in doubt in case of an emergency, military deployment is also necessary to protect our interests.
For example, free trade routes, for example to prevent instability in a whole region, which certainly have an negative impact on our opportunities via trade, jobs and income. All of that ought to be discussed and I believe that we are not doing too badly.”
The remarks appear to be a major departure from the political orthodoxy on the Afghanistan mission, which says the Bundeswehr is there to protect Germany from terrorist groups who would use the country as a base were it to descend into lawlessness or Islamist theocracy.
Thomas Oppermann, speaker of the opposition Social Democrats (SPD) parliamentary group, told news magazine Der Spiegel that Köhler was “damaging the acceptance of the Bundeswehr's foreign missions.”
Germany was not conducting “a war for economic interests,” Oppermann said. It was, on the contrary, about security. Anyone who said differently was “making the case of the Left party,” he added, referring to Germany's far-left socialists who strongly oppose the war.
“We don't want an economic war,” Oppermann said.
Constitutional lawyer Ulrich Preuß of Berlin's Hertie School of Governance also critcised Köhler's choice of words.
“That is a thinly veiled expansion, through the constitution, of the acceptable grounds for a Bundeswehr mission for economic interests,” he told Der Spiegel.
Preuß said Köhler's remarks were a “discernibly imperialist choice of words.”
“It reminds me of the English imperialists of the 19th century, who defended their naval supremacy with similar arguments,” Preuß said.
Left party co-chairman Klaus Ernst, said Köhler had “openly said, what cannot be denied.”
Bundeswehr soldiers were risking “life and limb for the export interests of giant companies.” It was a “war about influence and commodities,” which was not the idea covered by the Afghanistan mandate passed by the parliament, he said.
However, the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) have defended Köhler, while showing some discomfort at his choice of words.
Conservative MP Ruprecht Polenz, who is also chairman of the foreign affairs committee, said Köhler had “expressed himself somewhat unclearly.”
The president had not been “announcing a new military doctrine for Germany,” but rather had been trying to make clear that Germany was carrying out its contribution to international security and stability, he told broadcaster Deutschlandfunk.
And through this, Germany naturally had an interest in free foreign trade.
“You see that indeed with the international mission against piracy on the horn of Africa,” he said.
A “clear mandate under international law” was obviously always a requirement for war, he said.
At the same time, Köhler's statement was “not a particularly successful phrasing” to express these ideas, he admitted.