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Obama's German Itinerary Fuels Speculation Of U.S.-German Row

  • Bernd Volkert

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. President Barack Obama at a joint press conference in Dresden on June 5

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. President Barack Obama at a joint press conference in Dresden on June 5

Squeezed between visits to Egypt and France, the brevity and itinerary of U.S. President Barack Obama's trip to Germany have fueled media speculation of a rift between Washington and Berlin.

The U.S. leader has met with Chancellor Angela Merkel in Dresden, where the two strolled through the city center and the Gruenes Gewoelbe (Green Vault) museum before heading to bilateral talks that touched on hopes for Mideast peace, Iran's nuclear program, pressing financial and environmental issues, and the fate of detainees at the U.S. facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Obama quickly shrugged off "very wild" speculation of a rift as "based on no facts" at his press conference after meeting with Merkel. He blamed "simple logistics" for the limited itinerary and called "the relationship not only between our two countries but our two governments...outstanding."

"I know you have to find something to report on, but we have more than enough problems out there without manufacturing problems," Obama said.

'Only 24 Hours In The Day'

The rumors of a tiff began to swirl after official German requests that Obama make room for a high-level program were declined, with Washington stressing the private nature of the president's visits to a former concentration camp and to a U.S. military base ahead of this weekend's D-Day anniversary.

Notwithstanding the media's dire read on the situation, German politicians generally appear content with the state of German-American relations.

After wrapping their Dresden meeting, Obama and Merkel departed together for Buchenwald, site of the former Nazi concentration camp.

Obama's two-day trip to Germany was largely motivated by his interest in honoring his great uncle Charles Payne's participation in the liberation of Ohrdruf, a forced-labor camp that was a satellite of Buchenwald.

From there, the U.S. leader will head to a Ramstein hospital to visit U.S. troops wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan, before participating in weekend ceremonies commemorating the 65th anniversary of D-Day in Normandy, France.

The lack of a major public appearance in Dresden and the absence of a stop in the capital or in Weimar are being cited as evidence of discord. The speculation centers mainly on purported U.S. disappointment over Germany's outspoken criticism of its handling of the global economic crisis, the level of German commitment to the Afghan war effort, and Germany's reluctance to take in Guantanamo inmates.

The German weekly "Der Spiegel," writing about the government's failure to convince the U.S. administration to make room for a higher-profile agenda that could have played well ahead of upcoming German parliamentary elections, described it as "a diplomatic tug-of-war" that Berlin lost.

Calm On The Outside

Whatever the case, German pundits said Merkel will have to put on a good face during her time with Obama.

But representatives of Germany's main political parties didn't necessarily agree with the media's assessment of an American snub.

Eckart von Klaeden, the foreign policy spokesman of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group, for example, extols the German-American relationship.

"The question is not if there are any conflicts or different points of view, but how they are handled," von Klaeden said. "And it can be said that both sides handle them with great trust and responsibly. For that reason, I cannot see any discord at all."

Gert Weisskirchen, foreign policy spokesman for Germany's Social Democrats in parliament, contradicted his CDU/CSU counterpart on the issue of German-U.S. differences, but says they indicate a "revolutionary" and conceptual turn against the conservative approach of von Klaeden's party.

Weisskirchen said he sees a "very clear and unequivocal signal" in the strikingly low-profile character of Obama's visit and its specific route, but said it merely reflects historical realities.

"Germany earned its position in the West and in the North Atlantic alliance," Weisskirchen said, "but this position will always be set against the background of the Nazi dictatorship."

Media 'Fuss'

German politicians have generally welcomed the Obama visit, even if it seems sandwiched between much-heralded trips to the Middle East and France.

Karsten Voigt, a longtime Social Democrat who serves as the Foreign Ministry's coordinator of German-American cooperation, dismissed reports of discord as "mainly fuss made up by the media."

Addressing qualms expressed over Obama's choice of Dresden, whose firebombing by Allied forces as the end of World War II resulted in enormous civilian casualties that are frequently held up as an example of war crimes committed against Germans, Voigt said he sees an opportunity for new openness in the debate about the afflictions of history.

"Seen in this light, Buchenwald is a symbol for both [countries] at the same time: for the Americans because they liberated Buchenwald, and for the Germans because their anti-Hitler victims died there. And Buchenwald has also been used by the Soviets as a camp after World War II," Voigt said. "Dresden, again, is symbolic. It is an important place in Eastern Germany, it is a place that has suffered Allied bomb attacks and -- in spite of this -- now again works closely together with the Americans, and it is a symbol for East German reconstruction."

Christian Democrat Eckart von Klaeden offered a similarly positive assessment of Obama's schedule.

By visiting Dresden and Buchenwald, both located in the former German Democratic Republic, von Klaeden said he sees a historical reference made to "both of the totalitarian systems in Germany."

"Reunification would not have been possible without American help, the concentration camp would not have been liberated without American soldiers," von Klaeden said. "And Dresden stands for the reconstruction of Germany and for the reunification. Therefore, this is a very well planned and symbolic visit."

Apart from symbolism, the White House stressed ahead of the presidential trip that Germany and the United States "have a robust agenda on the bilateral front," saying that Afghanistan, Iran, and nonproliferation would be among the major topics of discussion between Obama and Merkel.