Once upon a time, then-senator and Democratic nominee for president Barack Obama came to Germany to seek his coronation as an internationalist after what he—and many Germans—considered the dark years of Bush unilateralism.
Fast-forward six years, and relations between Washington and Berlin have reached their post-World War II nadir. German Chancellor Angela Merkel resents greatly revelations that the U.S. National Security Agency spied on her personal telephone. To be fair, that is not President Obama’s fault, but a practice which precedes him. And, also to be fair, the Germans hardly have their noses clean when it comes to spying. If that episode had only just begun to heal, new revelations of American spying in Germany threaten to re-open the scar.
It could get worse. If the Germans chose to dig deeper, they might be surprised at the training which Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel requires of all Defense Department employees who visit or even transit Germany. Hagel, in his wisdom, mandates that all Defense Department employees undergo an extensive, if often irrelevant, nine-hour “Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape (SERE)” training course to receive online instruction on how to evade hostile locals and their police forces and administer creative first aid remedies to avoid having to go to local hospitals or even pharmacies. Now, those in the military who have had to do the real course rather than the online, computer version understand what a joke it is to believe you can learn how to deal with captivity, torture, and extreme duress from a typical Pentagon online training unit, especially one that most computers ironically can’t handle because of the extensive bandwidth required. Taking online SERE training is sort of like taking weaponry training with a water pistol. But, Hagel nonetheless requires it. Perhaps he wants his employees to be able to learn how to forage while in Germany because he does not trust the sandwich shops at the Frankfurt Airport.
The reason why Hagel continues to require such training which he admittedly inherited from his predecessors is probably poor management, but that’s no excuse for the defense secretary seemingly not recognizing that World War II is over and that there is no reason why he and the bureaucracy over which he presides should treat Germany, Canada, Norway, and Japan in the same manner as Lebanon, Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Nigeria. Still, given what the Defense Department bureaucracy requires ahead of travel to Germany, it should come as no surprise should relations between Berlin and Washington fall further. Perhaps, though, simply replacing mindless training with a dose of common sense could do both relations and Pentagon productivity some good.