White House pomp heralds Merkel
German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrived at the White House Tuesday, launching an official visit at which American pomp will mask differences between the allies over Libya and global economics.
Merkel rolled up to the South Portico of the White House in a US limousine, and was welcomed by President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle before a 19-gun military salute and the playing of the German and US national anthems.
The chancellor, in a lime green jacket and black trousers, reviewed an honor guard with Obama before greeting a line of cheering schoolchildren waving American and German flags on the South Lawn of the White House.
"Germany at the heart of Europe is one of our strongest allies and Chancellor Merkel is one of my closest global partners," Obama said in welcoming remarks.
"Our alliances with nations like Germany are more important than ever, indeed they are indispensable."
Merkel said she was overwhelmed by the "very moving" and warm welcome.
"We Germans know that America has always been a true friend to us, our friendship has grown and matured... and every day it is filled with new life."
Obama greeted Merkel privately on Monday night and took her out to a private dinner in the upscale Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, and is rolling out all the pageantry the United States can muster.
At a lavish state dinner later Tuesday, he will also present Merkel with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, another rare honor which seems to designed to scotch persistent reports in Europe that despite mutual respect, there is little personal warmth between the leaders.
The visit also comes two weeks after Obama's visit to Europe, in which he billed the transatlantic alliance as the cornerstone of US foreign policy, despite perceptions that he is more concerned about rising India and China.
Merkel is in Washington at a moment of high sensitivity for her government, as Germany fights a deadly E. coli outbreak that has prompted US officials to inspect all imports of cucumbers, lettuce and tomatoes from Germany and Spain.
The talks between the two leaders in the Oval Office were expected to focus on the crises in North Africa and the Middle East, eurozone financial turmoil and other key issues.
Germany caused frowns in Washington by abstaining in a UN Security Council vote that endorsed NATO action against Moamer Kadhafi's forces in Libya.
Germany, which has a non-permanent seat on the council, was the only European Union or NATO member to withhold its support.
The Merkel government has also been outspoken about some of the monetary and fiscal measures the US government and Federal Reserve have taken to revive the US economy after the worst crisis since the 1930s.
Merkel has been joined during her American visit by her reclusive chemist husband Joachim Sauer and several cabinet members.
Obama told Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel that he would now like to see Germany do more to help the international effort in Libya.
"I look forward to discussing with the chancellor how we can enhance our work together to more effectively address the changes under way in the region, including in Libya," he said, in an interview published Monday.
German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said shortly after his arrival in Washington late Monday that the amicable start to the visit "shows that US-German relations are extraordinary."
But he noted that lingering tensions between Berlin and Washington over some issues, notably Germany's decision not to join military action against Libya, in which Washington, Britain and France have played leading roles.
"Of course, even closest friends sometimes disagree on some things," Westerwelle said.
But he said Germany would "firmly" stick to its guns on the issue that has led to strained relations with its partners on both sides of the Atlantic.
"You must not confuse our position on Libya with neutrality -- we want a political solution," the German diplomat said.
Also on the agenda for Merkel and Obama is a discussion about the role of developing countries in the International Monetary Fund and whether it is a given that an American is always head of the World Bank and a European at the IMF.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest US honor that can be bestowed on a civilian, is given to people who have made significant contributions "to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors."
© 2011 AFP