Sparks fly on both sides of Atlantic over Schmidt-Reagan meeting
Bonn — West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt still thinks he is in a honeymoon period with US President-elect Ronald Reagan following his recent Washington "courtesy visit."
But a faction of Reagan advisers feel the President-elect was "exploited" by the West German leader durng that encounter. Hence, seven weeks before Reagan even takes office, recriminations have already begun.
This is how the Schmidt-Reagan meeting and its aftermath is viewed in Bonn by ranking West German and American diplomants. Its could bode ill for the next four years of American relations with the country that is the linchpin of Western europe.
At their initial meeting in November Chancellor Schmidt and President-elect Reagan hit it off well. Or so the Schmidt team thought. In Bonn you could sense the euphoria after Schmidt's return from America: Reagan (unlike Carter, in West German eyes) would have a clear, predictable policy. Reagan (unlike Carter) would put a high priority on consultation with allies.
True, there would be differences -- on additional NATO costs, European initiative and responsibility within NATO, trade and credit competition -- but they could all be resolved in good faith.
And then the as fell. Reflecting the thinking of some Reagan aides, Rowland Evans and Robert Novak wrote in a vitriolic Washington Post column that a "crafty" Schmidt had made "blatant exploitation" of his "courtesy visit" to Reagan. First the German chancellor "plotted to circumvent Reagan's advisers" in order to meet the President-elect despite Reagan's policy of not receiving any foreign leaders before he actually assumed office.
Mr. Schmidt successfully "sandbagged" Reagan into this by having friends like George Schultz run around Reagan advisers. The object was to "enshrine Schmidt above all other US allies and appear to dilute significant [Reagan-Schimidt] differences."
Reagan assented to a "courtesy visit" of a few minutes, but "Schmidt stretched it to a full 50 minutes. Every minute the meeting lasted, the more important it would look to the world." Schmidt then "stunned" the Reagan camp with a Bundestag speech that "ignored major Reagan-Schmidt differences about detente" and "made it seem that Reagan was in full agreeent" with Schmidt, when Reagan had said nothing beyond the "amenities" to him. Thus did Schmidt present himself as "Reagan's new best friend."
So little did this picture correspond with the German side's perception of a friendly Reagan-Schmidt conversation that the Bonn government didn't really take it seriously. Schmidt's spokesman, Klaus Boling, dismissed the article by commenting that these two journalists "like to disseminate stories that are often a mixture between fiction and truth."
Similarly one American -- while acknowledging he had heard only the German version of the Reagan-Schmidt meeting, expressed suspicion the article was "made up out of whole cloth."
He referred explicitly to what Bolling referred to implicitly: an Evans-Novak column of a year and half ago. That report accused Schmidt of going behind the backs of NATO allies to negotiate privately with the Kremlin on strategic-arms limitations and oil. It also asserted that Schmidt had told the Kremlin that West Germany would not deploy any nuclear ballistic weapons capable of reaching the Soviet Union. Both West German and American officials denied that report emphatically. And West Germany subsequently agreed to an early 1980s deployment of new NATO nuclear weapons that will in fact have the range to strike the Soviet Union.
Chancellor Schmidt's staff was also perplexed by the Evans-Novak fuss about Schmidt's normal cordial references to Reagan in his comprehensive Bundestag speech. The chancellor's only words dealing with Reagan's policy views said in their entirety, "I can report, on the basis of my talk with Governor Reagan, that his thinking points in the same direction" as West Germany's on the importance of strategic arms control and a continuation of the SALT process.
In the German perception this statement violated no confidences. And It is already being borne out by Reagan's deft use of Sen. Charles Percy (R) of Illinois to sound out the Kremlin about future SALT negotiations.
In Washington "informed sources" suggested to the West German newspaper Die Welt that the attack on Schmidt stemmed from the pro-Israeli hawks among Reagan's advisers. This group, it is hinted, resented Schmidt's getting the pre-inaugural meeting with Reagan that Israeli Prime Minister Begin had been denied. This faction of the ideological right, it is further hinted, doesn't at all mind using Schmidt as a weapon against the pragmatist faction among Reagan advisers.
If this Kremlinological interpretation of the infigthing on the Reagan team is true, the prospects for US-West German relations in the next four years could be grim -- especially since pragmatist and "Schmidt agent" Schultz has now dropped out of the Cabinet running. This leaves Reagan open to stronger influence by the ideological right that is pre-disposed to mistrust West Germany.
The irony of this reputed controversy is that diplomats and policymakers in Washington and Bonn are very close now in their analysis of East-West relations and defense issues. Mr. Schmidt, after waffling, has promised to do his best to fulfull the 1978 NATO pledge of a 3 percent real annual increase in national defense budgets. The American-European coordination of response to the Iran-Iraq war has gone quite smoothly. The threat to Western Europe's oil supply from that Mideast war for the first time brought Western Europe to a readiness to fill gaps from any diversion of American reserves to brushfire action in the Mideast.
In the Mideast, too, the European Community is holding off on any initiatives of its own on Palestinian rights in order to give the new American administration time to formulate its policy.
Similarly, Washington and Bonn are united in letting Moscow know that any Soviet invasion of Poland would be in the final death knell for detente. Bonn -- given East Berlin's month-old shrinking of detente contacts and Moscow's attempt to discipline Poland by a constant threat of invasion -- has no rosier hopes for detente than does Washington. The two nations' positions at th ongoing Madrid follow-up to the Helsinki security conference are virtually indistinguishable. West Germany and the US are also in accord on not exporting high technology to the Soviet Union