Breaking the ice
Gerhard Schroeder is making his first visit to the White House after US-German relations plunged into a crisis following the Chancellor's fierce opposition to the Iraq war. But could George W Bush be also looking for friends in Europe? Leon Mangasarian reports.
Schroeder and Bush: trying to get together again
"The visit shows they have both returned to being statesmen," said Gary Smith, head of the elite American Academy in Berlin, a leading think tank and German-American networking centre.
US-German political relations were plunged into their worst post-1945 crisis after Schroeder led opposition to last year's Iraq war and infuriated Bush by using the issue to win re-election.
Insults flew back and forth across the Atlantic with American officials describing ties as "poisoned" and prescribing a policy of ignoring Germany.
German politicians hardly made the situation better with a cabinet minister comparing Bush with Hitler and top member of Schroeder's party dubbing the US president a modern day Roman emperor.
*quote1*Bush refused to speak with Schroeder for almost a year and the ice was only broken at the June 2003 summit of G8 industrial nations in Evian, France where the leaders shook hands. This was followed by further talks in New York last September.
"We shouldn't keep looking in the rear-view mirror — what happened, happened," said US Ambassador to Germany Daniel Coats in a Bayerischer Rundfunk radio interview.
Smith took a more cautious position, saying: "I think it's obvious it will be a long road back to a strong German-American political relationship."
Nevertheless, the tone from Washington has changed markedly in the past months with the capture of Saddam Hussein closing one chapter of the Iraq conflict as US and allied forces struggle to stem ongoing violence as Baghdad lurches toward democratic transition.
Schroeder has vowed not to send troops to Iraq and Ambassador Coats underlined that Bush would not ask for soldiers.
"The German government says it does not want to send Bundeswehr troops to Iraq. We accept this ... there is no need for German troops there," said Coats.
What the US does seek is Berlin's backing for internationalizing Iraq and Ambassador Coats strongly welcomed two points which will be high on the Schroeder-Bush agenda during talks over lunch at the White House.
- Germany's pledge not to block moves to insert the Nato alliance into Iraq as has already been done in Afghanistan.
- Positive German reaction President Bush's initiative for Mideast reform which is expected to be high on the agenda at Nato and G8 summits this June.
It is therefore no surprise that Schroeder and Bush will focus on the Middle East, officials say. The German leader is expected to stress the European view that progress in the region hinges on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
*quote2*Despite ruling out troops for Iraq, Berlin has sought to sweeten relations with Bush by setting up an Iraqi police training programme, forgiving Iraqi debt and holding out prospects of basing a medical evacuation jet in Baghdad to fly injured US soldiers to American military hospitals in Germany.
Away from international affairs, Bush and Schroeder both have a domestic agenda which is driving forward their rapprochement, said the American Academy's Smith who underlined both men are at record lows in opinion polls.
Bush is being attacked by his likely challenger in November elections, John Kerry, for trashing ties with key allies in the run- up to the Iraq war.
Schroeder is battling left-wingers in his own Social Democratic Party over economic reforms and the news magazine Der Spiegel says the Chancellor now sees foreign policy as the best way to win a place in the history books.
Still, although there will be plenty of smiles for the cameras, nobody is expecting Bush and Schroeder to become political pals.
"Expecting a warm relationship is expecting too much…" said Smith.
The Berliner Zeitung newspaper also dismissed the idea of any personal warming between both leaders by noting a White House lunch was far lower on the Bush hospitality scale than a visit to Camp David - let alone a trip to the family ranch at Crawford, Texas.
Schroeder meets Bush during a two-day visit to the US which includes stops in Chicago and Jackson, Mississippi.
The Chancellor begins his trip in Chicago where he will make a speech to the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations.
Following the meeting with Bush, Schroeder travels to Jackson where he will open an exhibition of Baroque art from the eastern German city of Dresden.
The focus on economic and cultural ties is not a coincidence, says Smith.
While German-American political relations may have gone through a rough patch, economic and cultural ties remain very strong.
Subject: German News, Gerhard Schroeder, George W. Bush, German-US relations, Iraq