BONN, Germany -- The startling thing about Germany's first potential combat mission in half a century is just how little it startles. American editors, drilled in all the "out of [NATO] area" quarrels of the anti-missile 1980s, still ask suspiciously how much Germany resists foreign engagement, not how far it has come.
Maybe, then, it's time to debunk the myth that this is a consensus society that moves only at a snail's pace. Maybe the more accurate description is that the German establishment has created such a facade of stability verging on entropy that everybody -- Germans included -- believes the rhetoric of slumber, and doesn't even notice the innovation behind the facade.
In short, what has happened is that the Bonn government has approved sending up to 5,000 German troops to join the new NATO peacekeeping force in ex-Yugoslavia -- and nobody is batting an eye. Parliament will approve the dispatch shortly; public opinion is favorable. The story rates only a yawn abroad.
To be sure, the 5,000 won't match the 25,000 troops the U.S. will send, Congress willing. There won't be an infantry or tank company among them, only transport, logistics, engineering and medical personnel -- and those 14 Tornado jets crammed with anti-anti-aircraft electronics that are already flying NATO missions over ex-Yugoslavia. For domestic German consumption, Bundeswehr soldiers will have the figleaf of not being formally stationed in Bosnia during the year they will be there.
Nonetheless, this number matches the current British or French contribution to U.N. forces. The many German officers in the integrated NATO command will in fact be stationed on the ground. And all soldiers who might get in harm's way will be armed.
All told, it's a far cry from the conventional suspicion at unification five years ago that the newly sovereign Germans would be freeloaders, shirk all responsibility outside of NATO Europe, and generally behave like a big, cuddly Switzerland. At the time various columnists warned that Bonn would "renationalize" its foreign policy, now that it could escape American tutelage. Or if it didn't break up a NATO founded to keep the "Germans down" as well as the "Russians out" and the "Americans in," it would at least "hollow out" the alliance and make it incapable of action.
Germany's excessive pacifism from decades as an importer of security, continued RAND analysts, would probably make Bonn persist in rejecting all out-of-area commitments, while criticizing allies who took on such dirty work -- and thus goad Congress into bringing the boys (and girls) home from Europe.
None of the above happened.
The building of the new German consensus in support of out-of-area operations began, unnoticed, with the Gulf War back in 1991. At the time U.S. media spotlighted anti-war and anti-American street protests.
The real news, however, was a sea change in German views about morality and the use of force. As soon as Iraqi Scuds landed on Israel, given Germany's special obligation to protect Jews because of the Holocaust, pacifism in the face of aggression seemed shabby. Polls began showing a majority in favor of the U.S.-led war on Iraq, if not yet of German participation in it. Even the anti-establishment Greens fired one of their own officials for blaming the Iraqi Scud attacks on Israeli attitudes.
It was controversial, but the German government first provided mine-sweepers for the Persian Gulf in 1991, then two Transall C-160s to transport U.N. verifiers of Iraqi destruction of nuclear and chemical weapons, along with other aircraft to give humanitarian aid to Kurds in northern Iraq. In 1992 Bonn gingerly dispatched 1,500 military doctors to Cambodia; in 1993 it sent 1,700 armed soldiers to bolster U.N. peacekeeping in Somalia, then airmen to fly in multinational AWACS crews over ex-Yugoslavia.
The last action drew a constitutional court ruling in 1994 that out-of-area deployment was in fact legal, so long as parliament approved. And although ideological leftists among the opposition Social Democrats blocked party approval, 66 Social Democrats broke ranks last summer to swell the government's parliamentary majority for sending Tornadoes and medics to ex-Yugoslavia.
The enormity of the Serb atrocities, captured nightly on TV screens here, did a lot to change German minds. A year ago participation by 5,000 Bundeswehr soldiers in a NATO mission abroad would have been unthinkable. Today it's taken for granted. Consensus has worked, not to prevent change, but to make it seem natural.
All that snail's pace stuff is bunk.
Elizabeth Pond is a free-lance foreign correspondent, based in Bonn.