Facing tough election, Schroder turns to Bush, again

The German chancellor - a vociferous opponent of the Iraq war - meets with President Bush in Washington Monday.

The last time he faced the prospect of electoral defeat, Chancellor Gerhard Schroder turned President Bush's foreign policy into a campaign rally cry, plunging German and American relations to their lowest point since the end of World War II.

As Mr. Schroder visits Washington Monday, he is once again politically embattled, with his weakened Social Democrats (SPD) facing an emboldened Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in early elections this September. And he will no doubt use Mr. Bush to improve his voter support. But this time, analysts say, Schroder won't be driving the anti-Bush bandwagon he rode to victory in 2002.

Instead, the two-term leader is hoping his appearance with Bush will remind German voters of the greater international profile he has given his country. And he's expected to press Germany's case for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council - a bid the US has opposed.

In short, Schroder is doing everything he can to turn attention away from Germany's troubled economy.

"He will be able to go back to Germany and say, 'I stood up to Bush on the Iraq war, but nonetheless I can still go to the White House and have serious discussions with the President,' " says Karen Donfried, director of policy programs for the German Marshall Fund in Washington.

The image fits into the grander foreign policy vision Schroder has fashioned. Since he became chancellor in 1998, Germany has sent its soldiers into conflict regions, cast itself as a European Union (EU) power player and, in general, led the sort of foreign policy unthinkable even a decade ago.

"Moving about quietly is a thing of the past," says Andreas Maurer, an analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. "Schroder has tried to make the phrase 'looking out for national interests' part of the vocabulary."

Germany's louder voice has brought with it more responsibility. The next chancellor will have a major say on everything from Iran's nuclear ambitions to EU enlargement.

Efforts to expand the EU to include Turkey and other nations have been greeted with some resistance in Germany, which fears competition from cheaper labor markets to the east. But the destiny of the EU itself has come into question here in recent weeks, following rejection of the proposed constitution by French and Dutch voters, and failure to agree to an EU budget. Debate about Turkey's membership bid could dominate the campaign.

The CDU's candidate, Angela Merkel, is a protegee of reunification Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who took a pro-European, pro-American line during his 16 years in power. Ms. Merkel's party opposes full membership for Turkey and, given the dissonance pervading Europe at the moment, will make halting further EU enlargement a campaign issue, say analysts.

At the same time, Merkel won't abandon the pro-European stance of her mentor Kohl, says Ingo Peters, a foreign policy professor at Berlin's Free University.

"She will try to tread this line promoting a pro-European attitude while at the same time guarding against a larger, expanding Union," says Mr. Peters.

European leaders have already begun seeking out Merkel, who has had little opportunity to make a name for herself on the international stage. The CDU leader reportedly had a long conversation with British Prime Minister Tony Blair when he made a visit to Berlin in early June.

Observers say the CDU's traditional solidarity with the US and Merkel's vague promises to "work more closely" with Washington, indicate more change in style than in substance. A Merkel government would, for example, still not send German soldiers to Iraq, says Maurer.

But she would probably pursue cooler ties with Russia, and soft-pedal Germany's Security Council bid, analysts predict.

Germany's economic malaise, meanwhile, could limit Germany's international ambitions, regardless of who wins. Germany spent more than Euro 9 billion on international aid last year, and plans to increase that figure. But a 12 percent unemployment rate and an overextended defense budget are pushing domestic priorities to the forefront.

"The possibility of leading a more active foreign policy is somewhat limited ... because of finances," says Peters.

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