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Home News Putting the past behind them

Putting the past behind them

Published on 18/02/2005

US President George W. Bush visits Germany this month in what analysts say is a strategic reorientation toward Europe as Washington seeks to shake off the lingering Iraq war chill and bury its jibes about "old and new Europe".

“There has been a European turn in Bush’s foreign policy … it’s a paradigm shift,” said Gary Smith, director of Berlin’s American Academy which has become the top meeting place in Germany for high- level politicians and experts from both countries.

Bush’s summit with Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in Mainz on 23 February follows an American charm offensive aimed at Germany since last summer’s US-hosted G8 summit at Sea Island, Georgia.

Bush arrives in Germany on the heels of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who last week seemingly dazzled Schroeder during a stop in Berlin.

A jovial chancellor even handed over the reins to Rice at their news briefing with one of his rare public remarks in English: “We are in Germany. But that is women power,” said the chancellor flashing his trademark lion’s grin.

The Bush-Rice European thrust has been carefully planned for the past six months by the White House, said Smith. “Bush has come to believe in the priority of a strong European-American alliance.”

Pro-European officials have been appointed to top posts in the US State Department, said Smith, adding that US diplomats now play a far greater role in policy-making than in the first Bush administration, where Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s ministry had a driving role.

“Look at the Defense Department now – it’s silent,” said Smith, adding that the US military was now totally focused on Iraq.

Schroeder, at a regional election rally in Cologne seemed to agree, declaring: “We want a transatlantic partnership.”

This is not all talk: there have been tangible results from warming transatlantic ties, apparently also spurred by Schroeder’s hope of winning US support in his bid to get Germany a permanent UN Security Council seat.

Joint German-US efforts in the past year include:

  • German support for US moves which last year won an 80 percent reduction of Iraq’s debt to the Paris Club of creditor nations.
  • Berlin’s joining US calls for reform in the Middle East and support for a G8 dialogue on political and economic reform with the Muslim world launched last December in Rabat.

In addition, Germany’s strong backing of the European Union (EU) decision to open membership talks with Turkey – a move long sought by Washington – has been hailed by the Bush administration.

Nevertheless, while Schroeder may describe differences over the Iraq war – which he bitterly opposed – as “history”, there has not been any shift to his strict rejection of sending troops to Iraq.

“I told our American friends clearly there is a line which I do not even think about crossing: German soldiers will not be in Iraq as long as we are in power,” said the German leader.

So Berlin continues to limit its direct Iraq role to training police at bases in the United Arab Emirates and a limited number of army officers getting training in Germany.

Schroeder told Rice these programmes could be expanded and Berlin could play a bigger role in rebuilding Iraq’s civil institutions.

But as the ‘Frankfurter Allgemeine’ newspaper tartly noted: “Anyone who bothers to ask the German government how concrete these plans are, or if German personnel are to be sent to Baghdad, is told that nothing has been planned in detail and everything is up in the air due to the security issue.”

The newspaper concluded that even after Rice’s cordial talks with the chancellor: “Berlin has not changed its basic Iraq position by a single millimetre.”

Likewise, Bush policies which have angered Europe have also not been changed. The US still rejects the Kyoto accord on global warming and the International Criminal Court.

Meanwhile, fresh disputes loom over issues such German backing for lifting the EU arms embargo imposed on China after Beijing’s bloody crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations in 1989.

Iran’s nuclear programme could also emerge as a big test of new transatlantic harmony, despite Rice’s comments in Berlin that European diplomacy aimed at Teheran could still work.

Many in Washington are skeptical of efforts by Germany, France and Britain to cut a deal with Iran which is supposed to guarantee Teheran will not build nuclear weapons in exchange for trade and aid.

But Smith said the old school of American “realists” on Iran were reasserting themselves – at least for the moment – over the more militant neo-conservatives who dominated during Bush’s first term in office.

Given these issues, many in Germany remain doubtful over whether the better ties with Washington will last.

“The new German-American friendliness is built on feet of clay,” insisted the ‘Frankfurter Allgemeine’.

Even if Bush and Schroeder are all smiles during talks at Mainz’s 17th century Renaissance castle – which was gutted by American bombers in 1945 – the personal chemistry between both leaders remains difficult.

As the news magazine Der Spiegel pointed out, Schroeder will never forget how his “subtle anti-Americanism” along with his “No” to the Iraq war helped him win a narrow reelection victory in 2002.

With tough regional elections this spring and a general election coming up in 2006, all bets are that Schroeder will again tweak the nose of both the Americans and big business to rally his left-leaning Social Democrats (SPD).

For his part, Bush is known to hold grudges and was far more angry with Schroeder than with French President Jacques Chirac over both leaders’ opposition to the war.

“Chirac never gave me his word. He just took a different view. He’s a Frenchman. Now Schroeder gave me his word. He looked me in the eye and gave me his word he’d be with me. Then he had an election coming,” said Bush as quoted by British journalist Peter Stothard, editor of The Times Literary Supplement, who interviewed the president at Camp David.

A further problem is that Schroeder, whose humble roots have apparently made him deeply sensitive to questions of status, has always appeared ill-at-ease amid the pomp surrounding both Bush and former US President Bill Clinton.

Schroeder speaks only limited English making it difficult to forge a personal relationship with Bush. In contrast, Russian President Vladimir Putin has built a close political friendship with Schroeder thanks to his fluent German, learned during years in East Germany as a KGB spy.

Josef Joffe, a veteran German foreign affairs expert and publisher of the weekly Die Zeit, says Bush and Schroeder have both learned their limits over the past years.

Bush realises he can win a war alone but needs help to deal with the post-war situation, while Schroeder has seen the Berlin-Paris axis is not enough to stop Washington, says Joffe.

“Or put it this way: bad relations with America have never been a recipe for success in German foreign policy,” says Joffe, adding that this dictum has held at least since Kaiser Wilhelm II led Germany into World War I in 1914.


[Copyright Expatica News 2005]

Subject: German news, George W. Bush, Iraq war