Why Bush Is Giving Schroeder the Cold Shoulder

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Is George Bush ever going to let Gerhard Schroeder out of the penalty box? Ever since the German Chancellor resuscitated his election campaign by attacking the U.S. hard-line position on Iraq, Bush has been stewing. Last week, Bush did not call to congratulate Schroeder when he won re-election, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was publicly chilly to his German counterpart in meetings.

The putative reason for the cold shoulder is that Schroeder's Justice Minister Herta Daubler-Gmelin, compared Bush to Hitler, arguing that his fixation with Iraq was merely a ploy to divert from domestic political concerns. Bush complained that Schroeder had created the environment that allowed her to make such a remark. When the Chancellor wrote to apologize, the White House wasn't impressed.

Daubler-Gmelin is gone now, but the ill will still lingers. Why? Surely George Bush knows that in a presidential campaign you can say a thing or two that you regret later. And if merely creating an environment for bad behavior were the standard by which we punished our allies, then wouldn't Saudi Arabian leaders receive a little more grief for creating the environment that encouraged 15 of the 19 September 11 hijackers?

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According to Administration sources, Bush is angry because his German counterpart has gone back on promises he made in private. In meetings last spring, they say, Schroeder left the clear impression that he would support the U.S. on Iraq when the time came. Sure, he might want U.N. backing for a military move, but the clear signal he sent was one of cooperation. In return, U.S. officials let it be known that he would not have to make any public pronouncements before his late-September election. "He looked him [Bush] in the eye and lied," says one top U.S. official.

Going back on your word is not something that George Bush takes lightly. He practices a stomach-level brand of politics, often relying on gut instinct rather than the more cerebral niceties of statecraft. "He gets mad and he just stays mad," says one senior Administration official. But Schroder's campaign tactics were more than just a personal affront. "He took it as representative of a value system that he loathes: when the going gets tough you jump out of the foxhole. This just not a foxhole buddy thing to do."

Washington thinks the German stance is further evidence of the "Eurowimp" syndrome, the Administration's widely held view that the Europeans (apart from Tony Blair, of course) are unreliable allies in the fight against terrorism. By keeping the heat on Schroeder — there are rumors that Bush may not meet with him at NATO meetings in Prague in November — the U.S. hopes to keep the German leader and other Europeans from doing anything unpredictable. "They want Schroder in a box protectively," says the Administration official.

When will they let him off the hook? Some in the administration say that's already beginning. Country to country interaction continues on a wide range of other issues and as one top-level person put it, "diplomacy will start to take over." But that doesn't mean that the Germans might not be forced to offer one last act of atonement in the future. Initially, "it wasn't about getting something from the Germans," says a senior administration official about the dust-up. "But do we have a card we can now play? Yes."