Will Germany shift Iraq stance?

Reelected Sunday, Schröder begins effort to mend divisions caused by anti-US campaign rhetoric.

Even before all the votes were counted in Germany's cliffhanger election, Berlin began trying to repair the holes that a campaign with strong anti-American overtones has torn in transatlantic relations.

In the last weeks before Sunday's balloting, incumbent Chancellor Gerhard Schröder sharply criticized President George Bush's plan to oust Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Mr. Schröder's defiant refusal to take part in military action against Iraq – even if the UN were to approve it – broke a taboo. Never before in the postwar period had a German chancellor so publicly defied a US president. Now the German leader, whose ruling coalition was narrowly reelected Sunday, hopes to mend fences.

"The foundation of our historical partnership is strong enough to bear these differences of opinion," Schröder said during a late-night evaluation of the vote Sunday.

Peter Struck, the German defense minister, told the Monitor on election night that he hopes to meet with US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld at a NATO gathering this week in Warsaw. "We have to see that we normalize the German-American relationship again. It is slightly damaged; there's no question about that. But its basic foundation is strong," said Mr. Struck.

But Rumsfeld has said he will not meet with Struck in Warsaw and reiterated Washington's view that German criticism of US foreign policy during the campaign has poisoned ties.

Jackson Janes, head of the American Institute on Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University, says he can't recall a time when tempers on both sides of the Atlantic have been so hot. "The only thing they can do now is to send [Foreign Minister] Joschka Fischer over with a big fire hose," he said.

Analysts say Schröder will have to walk a fine line to keep his pledge to withhold German troops from involvement in Iraq – and at the same time assure Germany's allies that he is prepared to play a constructive role in international security.

One way to do this, suggests Karsten Voigt, who is responsible for German-American relations in the foreign ministry, is for Berlin to shoulder more of the burden in international peacekeeping elsewhere in the world, especially in Afghanistan and the Balkans. Mr. Voigt says the Americans are not really interested in having German troops fight in Iraq – and that the role of German troops in Iraq was largely a German election debate.

"What they are interested in is that we step up our involvement in Afghanistan, that we are more committed in Bosnia, where the Americans cannot be as involved," says Voigt.

Schröder has also offered to send German inspectors to Iraq as part of a UN mission, should the international body send inspectors back into the country. This is another signal to Washington that Germany is eager to play a constructive role in the future, say analysts.

"We have to make clear that we are in agreement with the goal that Saddam Hussein must not be allowed to possess weapons of mass destruction. And despite all the differences we have over how to achieve this goal, it is clear that the real problem is not the policies of the Bush administration but rather Saddam Hussein," says Mr. Voigt.

The fencemending with the US may prove a bit more daunting than German politicians admit, in light of preelection mudslinging across the Atlantic.

In the US, columnist William Safire wrote that former German Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping was heard to blame President Bush's insistence on removing Saddam Hussein on the "Jewish lobby" in the US. The parliamentary whip for Schröder's Social Democratic Party compared President Bush to Julius Caesar.

Just before the election, a German cabinet minister was quoted in a local newspaper as comparing President Bush to Adolf Hitler in a desire to use war as a distraction from domestic politics. The White House criticized the statements attributed to Herta Daeubler-Gmelin as irresponsible and inexplicable. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice went even further, saying the Germans had "poisoned" the bilateral relationship.

At a press conference yesterday, Schröder said that Ms. Daeubler-Gmelin, while denying making the comparison with Hitler, had asked not to be considered for a job in his new cabinet.

Despite all the controversy, some observers say ties between Germany and the US are too deep to be severed by the recent spats. "At no time in our past have the economic and cultural ties between our two countries been so deep, our corporate interests so integrated," says Gary Smith, director of the American Academy, a think tank in Berlin.

But Jeffrey Gedmin, director of the Aspen Institute, another think tank in Berlin, warns that Mr. Schröder has "opened Pandora's box," and he may have trouble putting the lid back.

"As a politician, Gerhard Schröder is very much like Bill Clinton," says Mr. Gedmin. "He dabbles in the political middle and is pro-business. He's not anti-American and he's not really a leftist." Comparing Schröder's political prowess to Clinton's, Gedmin then adds, "He's calculated that he can rupture the relationship and fix it all in the end."

In Germany, some political observers say Mr. Schröder's biggest problem after taking a unilateral position on Iraq may not be healing the wounds with Washington. For decades Germany has been a driving force behind the creation of a common European foreign and security policy. By taking a separate stand on Iraq, Germany blocked any move towards a European position.

"The long-term damages are much different than those in relationship to the US," says Juergen Falter, political scientist at Mainz University. "The Germans were always out front in advocating a common defense and security policy in the European Union. Now they are the first ones to veer off in a different direction. Germany's position regarding the European Union is permanently weakened because it has lost credibility."

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