For an American, it's hard to know what to make of this. The reason for his resignation? He was perceived as having justified German intervention in Afghanistan on a basis (defense of German commercial interests) that would make it illegal under the German constitution. The German President is head of state but not head of government, while the US President is both. Our previous President claimed the right to disregard both the law and the Constitution if he himself decided on his own that it was necessary for National Security. Our current President has, very sad to say, defended many of those specific claims in court and in action.
The notion of a President resigning because he suggested that the country might be be able to do something illegal in relation to a war is almost beyond imagination in the US today. The controversial statement is quoted in the linked Spiegel International article:
A country of our size, with its focus on exports and thus reliance on foreign trade, must be aware that ... military deployments are necessary in an emergency to protect our interests -- for example when it comes to trade routes, for example when it comes to preventing regional instabilities that could negatively influence our trade, jobs and incomes.
Our politics have reached the state where if an American President said something like that, there would only be a controversy because his opponents would be saying it didn't sound tough enough.
Even though I'm aware that German democracy has some very different concepts about war, international law, and personal responsibility of senior officials than American politis does, I'm actually surprised at Köhler's resignation over the flap. I can see that it wasn't as diplomatically phrased as one might hope from the country's head of state. But from what I've read about it, it was part of a longer interview and basically in that section, he was sort of rambling a bit about the factors that drive foreign and military policy. In the same interview, he praised German soldiers serving in Afghanistan. He didn't seem at all to be denouncing the justification for German participation in the Afghanistan War, which takes place under the NATO treaty in response to the 9/11 attacks on the United States.
There are certainly very legitimate questions about whether Germany's continued participation in that war is good policy now. But the legal basis of it is sound.
Oddly, even though he was resigning over the controversy, in his resignation statement he rejected the substance of the criticism:
My comments about foreign missions by the Bundeswehr on May 22 this year met with heavy criticism. I regret that my comments led to misunderstandings in a question so important and difficult for our nation. But the criticism has gone as far as to accuse me of supporting Bundeswehr missions that are not covered by the constitution. This criticism is devoid of any justification. It lacks the necessary respect for my office.
Political junkie that I am, I can't help but wonder if there are other political calculations playing a major role in this resignation. The Spiegel International piece gives this background:
Köhler became president in 2004 and was elected for a second five-year term in 2009. The former head of the International Monetary Fund was the first non-politician to become German head of state. He is a member of Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats [CDU] and was nominated for the presidency by the CDU with the backing of their coalition partners, the pro-business Free Democrats.
Köhler won praise during his first term for making a series of strong speeches urging Germany to reform its economy, and his apparent independence from the government prompted mass circulation Bild newspaper to dub him "Super Horst." But he surprised commentators in recent months by appearing to stay on the sidelines in the euro crisis.
Finding a successor will pose a headache for Merkel, whose popularity has slumped in recent months. She has been hit by criticism of her handling of the euro crisis and by the loss of a center-right majority in the upper house following sharp declines for her CDU in a state election in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany's most populous state, on May 9.
Merkel is under heavy criticism both inside and outside Germany for her tepid initial response to the bond vigilantes attacks on the euro. Her popularity and that of her party have taken a major hit because of the euro crisis. It's hard not to wonder if some big part of Köhler's resignation isn't about letting him be the sacrificial lamb for his partisan home team, Merkel and the CDU, over Merkel's poor performance in the euro crisis.
Poli sci geek extra: Almost every German I've ever talked to about the topic is mystified by the American Electoral College, which is the official Constitution body that elects the President of the United States.
The German head of state, the Chancellor, is chosen according to parliamentary procedures, in which the Chancellor candidate of the lead party forming the government become Chancellor. After the experience of the Weimar Republic, the German President under their current constitution, known as the Basic Law, is a relatively weak head of state. But it is part of his responsibility as head of state to formally propose the Chancellor candidate to the lower house of Parliament, the Budestag.
The German President, though, is actually selected by a body that's very much like the American Electoral College, meaning that the President is chosen not directly by the voters but by the Bundesversammlung (Federal Convention), whose only purpose is to select the President. Their membership is chosen by a combination of the Budestag and the states.