The German government's determination not to become involved in a possible war against Iraq has become an issue in two upcoming state elections. Opinion polls show that many Germans support the government's approach, but the opposition argues that it should have waited for next week's report by UN weapons inspectors before taking a decision. In the meantime, Germany and France have shrugged off U.S. criticism of their position, including a jibe by U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that they do not represent the new Europe.
Munich, 24 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Most political experts believe that German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder won the national elections in September because of his declaration that Berlin would not participate in any war against Iraq.
Now he is using the same tactic in the campaigning for two important state elections on 2 February.
Schroeder's Social Democratic Party (SDP) is running behind in both states, and many commentators believe the SDP could lose. In one state, Hessen, it is already in the opposition. The other is Lower Saxony, Schroeder's home state, where his party is struggling to stay in power.
SDP commentators say openly that Schroeder hopes that his strong antiwar stance will make the difference, as it did in the national elections.
The loss of both states would give the opposition Christian Democrats more power at the national level by strengthening their role in the upper house of parliament, the Bundesrat, which has considerable power to delay or reject legislation.
U.S.-German differences over a possible military intervention in Iraq came to a head early this week when Schroeder used an election rally in Lower Saxony to declare his outright opposition to any UN Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force: "I have made clear that Germany cannot agree to a legitimization of war."
In another statement, he said: "Don't expect Germany to approve a [UN] resolution legitimizing war. Don't expect it."
Until these comments, it was unclear whether Germany would support a UN resolution in favor of war or not. Previously, Schroeder had said Germany would not give military support to an intervention but left open how it would vote in a UN debate.
Schroeder's attitude provoked a hostile reaction in the United States but was hailed in Germany at antiwar rallies across the country. Opinion polls suggest that around 70 percent of the population opposes a war and supports Schroeder's position that Germany should offer no military support, apart from guarding U.S. installations in Germany against possible terrorist attacks.
At a rally in Hessen earlier this week, campaigners collected 40,000 signatures against a war in only a few hours. Many Germans say they believe the main goal of the United States is to seize control of Iraq's oil fields.
A government spokesman said today that Schroeder was strengthened in his total opposition to war by his meetings this week with French President Jacques Chirac in Paris and Berlin. They declared they will do everything possible to delay a decision on war by extending the mandate of the UN weapons inspectors, who are investigating whether Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, as the United States claims. The inspectors are scheduled to report to the UN on 27 January but have already said that they need several more months to complete their work.
The German and French "no" to any immediate action drew sharp criticism from U.S. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld said the two countries are part of what he called the "old Europe," which he said is making itself less relevant. He added: "If you look at the entire NATO Europe today, the center of gravity is shifting to the east. And there are a lot of new members."
This was a reference to the fact that the U.S. position on Iraq is supported by most of the Eastern European countries that have joined NATO or are about to do so.
The French finance minister, Francis Mer, said he was "deeply insulted" by Rumsfeld's remarks. But in Germany, Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer shrugged off the comments and advised Rumsfeld to "cool down." Hans-Ulrich Klose, who is vice chairman of the German parliament's Foreign Relations Committee, said Rumsfeld's tone represented no more than a cultural difference.
"Both Rumsfeld and President Bush tend to talk in a provocative, aggressive manner," Klose said. "Europeans do things differently."
In its campaigning, Schroeder's SDP sometimes emphasizes its differences with the opposition Christian Democrats (CDU) by referring to them as the "war party." The CDU strongly rejects the charge. It insists that it, too, wants peace, but believes that if the Security Council approves military intervention, Germany should participate in any international action.
The CDU leader in the state of Hessen, Roland Koch, has responded to Schroeder's challenge by making the government's policy an election issue. At political rallies, a forceful, aggressive Koch insists that Schroeder's so-called German road has damaged relations with the United States and has also weakened the pressure on Saddam Hussein to comply with Security Council demands.
Koch says: "No one wants war, but Germany cannot stand aside if the United Nations approves military intervention. It will be isolated in the international community."
The national CDU leader, Angela Merkel, believes Schroeder has damaged German interests by rejecting any role in a possible war without waiting for the report by the weapons inspectors: "It is not in Germany's interests to follow its own road. It was a mistake to declare such a position even before we know what is in the inspectors report. One can say the inspectors have done their work for nothing if Germany has already decided what action it will take."
The CDU argues that Schroeder's independent approach has isolated Germany. Merkel said, "A German government led by the CDU would never act on its own."
Several German commentators say Germany must take into consideration the future attitude of the United States if Berlin continues to refuse its support over Iraq. One of them, Klaus Friederichs, said today: "It would be naive to believe that relations could be the same. Washington has made it very clear that those who do not support the U.S. effort in some way will be treated coldly. That is a powerful argument which must be considered by Germany's leaders in deciding their course of action."
Despite the dispute, Germany is going ahead with plans to protect U.S. military bases in Germany against possible terrorist acts. A spokesman said on 24 January that 2,600 troops will take up duties this weekend at 95 U.S. military installations around the country. A military spokesman, Colonel Markus Werther, said as many as 7,000 troops from the army, air force, and navy might eventually be needed.
U.S. officials say Washington has asked Germany to be prepared to guard the bases for up to two years.
Friederichs points to this as evidence that despite present tensions, Germany and the United States continue to cooperate. He said: "Regardless of the present difficulties, Germany and the U.S. have been friends for many years. Eventually these relations will resume."