France and Germany and their fair share

Posted: Mar 20, 2003 12:00 AM

When it came down to it, two of America's closest Cold War allies -- France and Germany -- were unwilling to bear the responsibility of major powers when it came to Iraq. They weren't there when we -- and the world -- needed them. Instead, they carped, complained, delayed and even sabotaged efforts by the United States to make the fight in Iraq a united front. Rather than prevent war, they made it impossible to avoid. Had France and Germany joined a united Europe and United States in confronting Saddam Hussein, it is very likely that the crisis in Iraq would have been resolved peacefully.

American opinion is divided on whether France and Germany's failure of will is the result of cowardice or just fecklessness. I am inclined toward the latter. I think the truth is that neither country has the means any longer to wage a serious military campaign and were too proud to admit it. Rather than exhibit their weakness for the entire world to see, they pretended that their objection to military action in Iraq was based on some ill-defined principle. But I don't think they could have done much of anything militarily in Iraq even if they had stood with us shoulder-to-shoulder.

The sad truth is that France, which once conquered most of Europe under Napoleon, and Germany, whose military prowess in World War II was monumental, have become military weaklings. Neither could fight their way out of a paper bag today.

The reason is that the welfare state has severely weakened both France and Germany to the point where their armed forces are just extensions of it. Their armies, navies and air forces exist not to fight, but to provide jobs with lifetime security for the otherwise unemployable. Moreover, the welfare state -- and the high taxes that go with it -- have so weakened them economically and technologically that they couldn't afford a 21st century military even if it were a matter of national survival.

According to a recent report from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, last year the United States spent 3.3 percent of its gross domestic product on national defense, while France spent 2.5 percent and Germany spent just 1.5 percent. At first glance, the difference may not seem that great, but the United States spends much more of its defense budget on weaponry and equipment, while France and Germany spend most of theirs on personnel. According to NATO, France and Germany spend over 60 percent of their defense budgets on pay and benefits, while the United States spends only 34.7 percent. The United States also spends 24.9 percent of its defense budget on equipment, while France and Germany spend just 19.6 percent and 12.2 percent, respectively.

According to a February 13 Wall Street Journal report, no nation in Europe has a military that can be depended upon in time of war. "Europe's military muscle has grown soft," it states. Its troops are poorly equipped and poorly trained. Europe's technology is old and obsolete, and there is no money to upgrade it because its troops are too highly paid and enjoy lavish benefits. Indeed, many are unionized and routinely go on strike for such things as increased vacations. Like most workers in Europe, soldiers cannot be fired for incompetence and essentially have jobs for life.

According to a March 18 report in The New York Times, Germany's once powerful army has become a "basket case." It is "one of the worst military laggards" in NATO, it says. Germany's budget for equipment is so small that it had to lease old planes from Ukraine just to send a few troops to Afghanistan to help out with peacekeeping last year. It spends $1 billion per year on maintaining its aging fleet of trucks, but spends just $40 million buying new ones.

The same is true throughout Europe. Indeed, a spokesman for Belgium's defense ministry even admitted that its armed forces are a joke. "I'm not sure that the mission of the Belgian military is to fight," he said. Not surprisingly, Belgium strongly supported France's efforts to block military action in Iraq.

While Europe's military has grown soft and weak since the collapse of communism, the United States has continued to upgrade and modernize its forces. We have the best-trained, best-equipped and best-led military on earth. Our military is so strong and so powerful it is frightening. I think that is a key reason why the Germans and French opposed us. They cannot compete, and they know it.

If France and Germany want to be fat and lazy welfare states, that is their choice. But if so, they should have the decency to resign from the world stage and not pretend to be major powers any longer.