Respect Germany's Caution

Washington has not seen such high seas in its trans-Atlantic relations since the Reagan era. Germany and France are thwarting White House war plans for Iraq, and the administration - and probably many Americans - are seething.

But they should remember, at least in the case of Germany, the historical context for Berlin's stubborn opposition.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that a reunited Germany has had barely 13 years of post-cold-war life to grapple with its new role in the world. This is an incredibly short time since the days when global affairs were determined by the US-Soviet relationship and when politicians in the former provisional capital of Bonn knew their role: Keep your head down, and don't do anything militarily that smacks of Hitler.

The same can't be said of France. It was not locked in an identity freezer for 45 years, and has no problem flexing its muscles around the world.

The Germans, however, are slowly emerging from their national icebox. In the Gulf War, they refused to send their military to join US troops, pointing to constitutional restrictions on out-of-NATO-area deployments. But they reinterpreted their constitution in the mid-1990s, and sent crucial peacekeepers to Bosnia and even supplied combat troops for Kosovo. This month, they took over co-leadership of peacekeepers in Afghanistan - a great distance, mentally and physically, from Europe.

Another point: Germany's foreign minister comes from the Greens, which have a strong pacifist tradition. Pacifism is not the same as weighing war on its merits. It is simply antiwar, and is a sentiment widely held in Germany. But even the Greens have evolved. In 2001, they nearly brought down the government over German deployments to Afghanistan. In the end, though, they supported the decision.

Admittedly, the German chancellor has not been diplomatically adept, saying flat-out "never" to participation in a war with Iraq. This, and other misguided utterances, have ticked off President Bush.

But Germany is working hard with the US to find and investigate terrorists. If they are not with Washington on Iraq, they may very well be with the US on the next big world issue.

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