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Germany/U.S.: Roots Of Dispute Go Deeper Than Campaign Rhetoric

  • Ron Synovitz

Relations between Germany and the United States appear to be at their lowest level since World War II, with Washington accusing German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder of winning re-election by campaigning on "excesses" of anti-Americanism.

Prague, 25 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The White House has charged that German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder won his recent re-election bid through a campaign of excessive anti-Americanism.

Ari Fleischer, a spokesman for U.S. President George W. Bush, has suggested that relations could be clouded for some time over the different views that Washington and Berlin have on possible military action against Iraq.

In particular, Bush was angered over an alleged comment by German Justice Minister Herta Daubler-Gmelin during the campaign that compared Bush to Hitler. Daubler-Gmelin, who has since resigned, reportedly said that Bush was using the issue of war with Iraq to distract American voters from domestic problems in the United States much in the same way that Hitler had done in Germany during the 1930s.

Senior U.S. officials have stated that the Schroeder government has a lot of work to do to repair the damage done by the way it conducted its campaign. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld described the relationship this week as "poisoned."

Speaking today in Warsaw at the conclusion of a two-day meeting of NATO defense ministers, Rumsfeld was asked by a German reporter what Berlin could do to improve relations with the United States. "It's not for me to give advice to other countries. We do have a saying in America: 'If you're in a hole, stop digging.' I'm not sure I should have said that. Let's pretend I never said that," Rumsfeld said.

Rumsfeld also told reporters he remains uncertain how German-U.S. relations can quickly be put back on track. "The president [Bush] and the secretary of state [Colin Powell] and the secretary of defense have continuous relationships with all of the NATO nations. They go on at multiple levels, and obviously we are in a period where there are quite strong views that are held in the United States about things that have been said and done. How that will iron out [develop] in the days and weeks and months ahead is, I guess, yet to be seen," Rumsfeld said.

Steven Everts is director of the Trans-Atlantic Program for the London-based Center for European Reform. He told RFE/RL that it is a mistake to view the dispute between Berlin and Washington solely in the context of the German elections. "The U.S.-European relationship has been, for some time now, under a considerable amount of stress. We've had differences over the Middle East. We've had differences over steel, over an international criminal court. As an extension of this comes the German electoral campaign. I think it is wrong to seize on this electoral campaign too much because you might lose sight of the broader underlying structural issues that I think characterize the relationship," Everts said.

Everts also said the widening political rift between Berlin and Washington is indicative of concerns that other European countries share with Germany. "For some time now, there's been a lot of debate on both sides of the Atlantic over whether the United States and Europe still share a common world view, in a sense of whether they agree and what counts as an international problem, and in particular, how you solve international problems. [For example,] what is the balance between so-called hard and soft security instruments? How effective is military force? Under which conditions can it be used, and what are the roles of various international organizations and legal instruments in tackling these problems?" Everts said.

Everts' opinion is shared by other analysts who specialize in trans-Atlantic relations. Dominique Moisi, deputy director of the Paris-based French Institute for International Relations, told RFE/RL today that many Europeans, including political leaders, quietly agree with the strong stance against military strikes on Iraq that Schroeder has taken. "Seen from Paris, there is a certain schadenfreude -- a discreet satisfaction -- at seeing Germany being perceived as the black sheep of the trans-Atlantic family. But at the same time, what Schroeder is saying is what many Europeans are feeling, even if they do not express it very openly," Moisi said.

But Moisi said he does not think the situation would deteriorate to the point that Berlin would refuse to allow the United States to use its bases in Germany as part of a military campaign against Iraq. "If there was a war, I think it would be very difficult for the Germans not to allow bases on their soil to be used. I think that would be quite extreme for the German position. And, in fact, they will not support fully the war in Iraq. But they will say, 'Germany will not be in your way -- [not] an obstacle. We won't be with you, but we will not be against you,'" Moisi said.

Everts said he typically analyzes issues such as support for U.S. military strikes against Iraq by focusing on the different political viewpoints of emerging coalition leaders. He said he thinks the French government, rather than Germany, eventually will lead Europe on the issue of strikes against Iraq because Paris has "a very carefully calibrated position" that uses language that focuses on the issue of enforcing UN resolutions, not regime change.

French President Jacques Chirac reiterated his position yesterday during a conference in Copenhagen. "Concerning Iraq, we have reached an agreement on two points. Firstly, it is necessary to have a durable disarmament in Iraq in accordance with the United Nations resolutions. Secondly, the whole matter should be dealt with in the United Nations, within the framework of the United Nations, in a multilateral way," Chirac said.

Everts said he thinks the French position will eventually dominate Europe. "I think there will be gradual convergence roughly around the French position. Most European governments will find it extremely difficult to oppose a U.S.-led campaign that says, 'We are going to enforce Iraqi compliance with UN resolutions.' All European governments have emphasized the necessity of handling this crisis in the context of the UN. European governments, at the minimum at the political level, will support that. And it is my hunch that also Germany will do that. If you study some of the comments that [German Foreign Minister Joschka] Fischer has been making, I think they point in that direction," Everts said.

Everts also said that if there is a well-argued and tightly phrased UN resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq, he expects France to support military action, not just in political terms but also by contributing military forces. "That will highlight the difference between the approach that Germany takes and the approach that France will take," Everts said.

For his part, Moisi said it is significant that the first trip made abroad by Schroeder after his election victory was yesterday to London, especially coming as it did just after British Prime Minister Tony Blair's government made public a dossier based on intelligence assessments. The dossier outlined evidence to support the U.S. claim that Iraq is continuing to try to build weapons of mass destruction in violation of its obligations under UN Security Council resolutions.

Speaking about Schroeder's trip to London, Moisi said: "It's clearly an attempt to say, 'I can't go to Washington right now. But I'm coming to Washington's closest ally. And here we are together.' But there is also an element of ideological compatibility. A center-left leader is going to meet another center-left leader, even if they have great differences on the subject of Iraq."

One possible way out of the dilemma for Berlin is its offer to take over command of the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul. That move would allow Schroeder to keep his campaign promise of staying out of any war with Iraq while freeing forces from other countries now in Afghanistan for redeployment to the Persian Gulf.