How a hurricane fueled German politics

America had been on its best behavior. President Bush made a stop in Germany on his "listening" tour this spring. He threw his support behind European negotiations with Iran. Days before the German election Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld openly complimented German hospitality during a recent NATO ministerial in Berlin. No more controversial talk of "ending" terrorist states.

Especially after anti-American rhetoric decisively tipped the scales in the 2002 German election, these genuine efforts should have bolstered America's image in this year's elections, right?

When former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was asked what he feared most in politics, he replied, "Events, dear boy. Events!" And so failed America's charm offensive in Germany. For behind postelection analysis of German gridlock and economic malfunctioning, there was, for instance, the event of hurricane Katrina.

One will surely ask, Katrina and German politics? Most Americans fail to grasp how deep anti-Americanism now runs in Europe and how the slow response to Katrina - and the poverty it exposed - could trigger almost fanatical anti-American sentiment in Europe.

In Britain, an opinion columnist in The Guardian encouraged his readers to withhold hurricane aid: "America needs [political] change not charity." In Germany, it was worse. Columnist Philipp Mausshardt of the German Tageszeitung felt "joy" that Katrina "hit the richest country in the world" and "would be even happier to know that it destroyed the homes of Bush supporters and members of the military." Andreas Renner, a German state minister (of the conservative party, typically more sympathetic to the Bush administration), claimed that "Bush should be shot" for his delayed response to Katrina victims. German Environmental Minister Jürgin Trittin suggested that Katrina was America's due retribution for not signing Kyoto.

Enter Gerhard Schröder on a bid to win reelection. Mr. Schröder was faced with the dual task of diverting attention away from his already painful economic and social reforms and justifying the still malfunctioning German economy (0.6 percent growth, 11.8 percent unemployment). Not one to shy away from emptying his anti-American quiver, Schröder apparently felt that Katrina was the perfect distraction.

In an election debate, he jabbed that Katrina's aftermath showed the dangers of a "weak state." At his farewell rally, he drove home how favorably un-American were his policies: Electing his opponents would result in "old age poverty as in America." By rough count, he mentioned America eight times that evening - a noticeable drumbeat in an election where foreign affairs were basically a nonissue.

Pictures of floating bodies and gun-toting shopkeepers in New Orleans coincided exactly with Germans' decision whether to cast their ballot for more "American" reforms. As in 2002, Schröder made America a key election issue and ensured that Germans got the message: However broken the German economy may be, at least it is not American.

His strategy seemed to have pay off - to an extent. In the two weeks before the polls opened, Schröder's support soared by nearly 10 percent. One Schröder supporter proudly justified his vote as one "against supermarket America." The French communist newspaper l'Humanité congratulated its German friends for rejecting "neoliberalism" (European code for "American capitalism").

What was most striking was not simply the unsympathetic coverage of Katrina. It was the fact that a purely American domestic issue - a natural catastrophe, no less - provoked such a political display of schadenfreude, anger, and German pride. For decades, anti-American political rhetoric in Europe had been the stuff of wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. It was triggered by the neutron bomb and deployment of Pershing missiles to Europe. In short, US foreign policy, not American domestic matters, was the fodder.

Schröder's bid to make American domestic politics an issue in his election - far beyond his previous comparison of American investors to locusts - marks a watershed. In light of the recently failed European Constitution also deemed too neoliberal, the German case is only symptomatic of a broader trend in Europe. Since 2001, most Europeans had become convinced that US foreign policy was the greatest hazard to their welfare. This year, American-style capitalism is being taken on as an equally formidable adversary.

No matter how the German government takes shape under Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has vowed to strengthen ties to Washington, the election has confirmed that exploiting anti-American populism has become disturbingly easy in Germany today. Prepare for more.

Marik A. String is a researcher of transatlantic relations at the Aspen Institute, Berlin.

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