MADISON, WISC. — The Bush administration seems intent on publicly punishing the newly reelected Schröder administration for the antiwar even anti-American elements so key to the chancellor's victory. The president's advisers need to rethink this approach quickly, because they're rushing the administration into a lose-lose situation.
As international headlines emphasize steps that Berlin is taking to make amends, the stony silence in Washington looks increasingly churlish.
And as Chancellor Gerhard Schröder continues to make it clear that his antiwar position on Iraq wasn't all political calculation, but a position based on conviction and solid policy grounds that will change little even with victory in hand, the Bush administration will look much worse than peevish it will look noticeably impotent.
One item coming out of the German voting data should be particularly heeded by the Bush team. While German voters unsurprisingly gave the chancellor poor marks for the way he has managed the economy so far, they gave him outstanding marks for the manner in which he stands up for national interests.
In a remarkable 30-point differential (55 percent to 22 percent), Germans told pollsters that Social Democrat Schröder was better able than his conservative Christian SocialistEdmund Stoiber to defend German voters' preferences in the international arena.
No issue showed that more obviously during the election than Schröder's very clear stance on Iraq. And the polls show unequivocally that a strong majority of Germans across party lines agree with that position.
The German political center also made abundantly clear what happens when politicians dabble in unacceptable behavior: Their careers can be headed for the dustbin very quickly. The German minister of justice who reportedly made the comparison between President Bush and Hitler "resigned" Schröder had stated in a press conference beforehand that he "knew what needed to be done" hours after the victory was secure. And the vice- chairman of the conservativeFree Democratic Party, who made elliptical anti-Semitic remarks days before the election, was forced out of the party leadership, unanimously.
Estimates are that the supposed Bush-Hitler statement cost the Social Democrats up to 2 percentage points in the polls; and anti-Semitic inferences deprived the Liberal Democrats of 3 percentage points. In short, voters firmly punished both ends of the political spectrum for unacceptable behavior.
The Bush administration apparently would have preferred to see the Schröder government dump the justice minister immediately. But it would have been politically disastrous to fire a minister and complicate a scandal on the eve of elections.
German politicians are not alone in hard-headed calculations to bag the big prize. The Bush team spent much of the presidential election singing the virtues of states' rights but went straight to the US Supreme Court when it looked as if some of those rights might cost them the election. Schröder and Bush could console each other over one commonality: They both won ugly.
German voters support their chancellor and his Iraq stance for three main reasons. The country still struggles with the question of what role force should play in foreign policy and we should welcome that caution. Then there is the question being discussed more in the German press than in the US of how the international community will rebuild both Afghanistan a mission for which there currently is a major gap in resources and Iraq. Lastly, after Vice President Dick Cheney's Aug. 26 speech announcing that military action was completely possible regardless of the results of UN inspections, the Schröder government, and German voters, were incensed at what was perceived as another unilateral Washington move.
No other Western leader has expended more political capital than Schröder to support the Bush administration in Afghanistan. The chancellor even forced a no-confidence vote in the parliament to secure permission to send German troops to Afghanistan. He won by two votes. And outside the US, no other country has more troops abroad and on the ground to fight global terrorism than Germany.
The current generation in power in Germany is deeply aware of its international commitments, is willing to spend the blood and treasure of its citizens to uphold those commitments, and is willing to make the case repeatedly to the German people about why the country needs to be willing to pay this price for international security.
But Schröder is neither Konrad Adenauer nor Helmut Kohl. His generation does not need to accept as the natural order of things that Washington has the ultimate say on key matters of global strategy for the West. And German voters agree with the new order of things where national interests should exist, and be stood up for.
There is enormous public goodwill in Germany toward the US, and contrary to what some may think, a very strong ally in the Berlin chancellery.
Despite the raw political season just endured, the Bush administration needs to focus on those two fundamental pluses, construct a positive strategy to engage the democratically elected chancellor, and put away quickly its current withdrawn approach, which will only make it look begrudging and uninfluential vis-à-vis what is still Europe's leading power.
Crister S. Garrett is executive director of the European studies program at the International Institute of the University of Wisconsin, Madison.