Collision Course

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In the world of NATO — the old, familiar world of staunch allies and unblinking deterrence — it counted as big news: defense ministers meeting in Warsaw last week agreed to admit seven Eastern European countries into the alliance in November. But this so-called big-bang expansion was all but drowned out by the technicolor blasts coming from a brand new world — a world of terrorism and pre-emptive strikes against enemies who can't be deterred. In this new world, it turns out, steadfast friends are at each other's throats, one war may start before the last war is finished, and Europe and America aren't sure whether to trust each other.

The high-stakes diplomatic battle that raged last week between Washington and Berlin was partly about Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's election-campaign criticism of U.S. plans to attack Iraq. Schröder staged a remarkable comeback victory against challenger Edmund Stoiber in large part thanks to his promises to reject a U.S. war, whether or not it was sanctioned by the United Nations. He loudly and repeatedly claimed that he would not "click his heels" to Washington's insistence on military "adventures." And the fight was also partly about the ill-chosen words of German Justice Minister Herta Däubler-Gmelin, who was quoted comparing Bush's tactics to Hitler's because both used foreign crises to deflect attention from domestic ones. It was her remark that caused George W. Bush to lose his temper and strike back — he pointedly did not make the traditional call to congratulate Schröder on his victory, while Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld talked about a "poisoned" relationship and refused to meet privately in Warsaw with his German counterpart, Peter Struck, whom he referred to only as "that person."

But there was more going on than a President's anger or a Chancellor's bellicose words. The battle was, in a very real sense, between the old and new ways of looking at the world — between the comforting idea that democracies don't attack unless attacked, and the unsettling notion that security can demand a harsh first strike.

Schröder may not actually believe in the old world any more — sources tell Time that even before he hammered the President publicly, he had assured Bush that he would be with him on Iraq if the Americans built a coalition. But if Schröder didn't believe in the old world, 80% of his people did — that's the percentage of Germans who oppose the war. So he played to them on the stump and did what he had to do to get re-elected. But did he destroy his country's precious ties with the U.S. in the process?

Though hostilities now show some signs of easing, Schröder was clearly worried by the vehemence of the American response. The Chancellor may not have clicked his heels to Washington, but he did hotfoot it to London just days after the election to enlist Tony Blair's support in patching things up with Bush. The two leaders met for an informal dinner, with only an interpreter present, in the upstairs flat at No. 10 Downing St. Though the British are careful not to show any signs of schadenfreude, one government official says Schröder's predicament "is delicious for Blair. It shows the transatlantic bridge is working and that Blair is the pivot."

That bridge — which Schröder derided during the campaign as supporting only one-way traffic — could be an important route through which the Germans and Americans make nice. Even as they debated opposite positions, Blair and Schröder were careful not to attack one another, notes Henrik Uterwedde, deputy director of the German-French Institute in Ludwigsburg. "Blair has protected Schröder," he says. "You never heard him join in the chorus against him. Now, he's in a unique position to get the Germans out of the corner."

A more direct — and ultimately more effective — approach may come from Germany's Green Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer. A fluent English speaker and friend of Secretary of State Colin Powell, Fischer has exactly what Schröder seems to lack: a nuanced understanding of domestic American politics and a realization of the importance of U.S. support in a crisis. "We have not forgotten that the U.S. liberated us and defended us in the cold war," Fischer told TIME. "I know the United States very well. Bob Dylan was more important for my political orientation than Karl Marx."

 


Fischer was careful during the campaign not to mimic Schröder's tone. But the Chancellor himself seemed deaf to the alarm raised by his remarks in Washington. According to a German official, Schröder just doesn't get Bush's style — the funny nicknames, the emphasis on unwavering loyalty. Schröder doesn't take campaign rhetoric personally, so he didn't expect Bush to either.

Well, he was wrong. Over the past month, the White House has been itching to bash Schröder for turning Iraq into a campaign issue — especially since the Administration let Schröder know that he didn't have to take a public position on Iraq before election day. Däubler-Gmelin's alleged remarks gave the Administration the perfect excuse to strike. "Nobody is going to pretend that the excesses didn't harm the government-to-government relationship," says one senior Administration official. "When there are important developments, Chancellor Schröder will not be the first, second or third person the President will consult."

That's a shame, since according to a diplomatic source close to both Bush and Schröder the President really liked the Chancellor — until this summer, at least. "The President values the personal side of diplomacy," this source says. "All spring long, everyone on both sides was surprised by how close these two had become. Now, that is unlikely ever to be recreated."

Despite this initial rapport, Washington also attributes the German stance to "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. Fischer is adamant that this analysis is incorrect, pointing to the fact that Germany's spd-Green coalition staked its survival on supporting American military action in Afghanistan — and that he himself took enormous flak for cajoling the historically pacifist Greens into supporting that decision.

Since all foreign troop deployments must be approved by the Bundestag, Schröder and Fischer called a vote of confidence on the German contribution to Operation Enduring Freedom in Nov. 2001. They narrowly won that vote, but if they hadn't the coalition would have collapsed. "We put our government at risk," Fischer says. "And now our soldiers are in dangerous missions with American soldiers" in Afghanistan. Proof enough, he thinks, of German loyalty, and a message he hopes to deliver soon during a trip to Washington. "We will work very hard to improve relations and get back to normal business," Fischer says. "This is in our common interests."

It's not clear which of Washington's interests are being served by publicly prolonging Schröder's pain. But clearly much of the Administration's initial wrath was personal. Bush practices a visceral brand of politics, often relying on gut instinct rather than the more cerebral stratagems of statecraft. "He gets mad and he just stays mad," says one senior Administration official.

But Schröder's campaign tactics were more than just a personal affront. They represented a backstabbing ethic that Bush loathes: he thinks it is precisely when the going gets tough that you stand by your friends. "This was an outrage," says the Administration official. Initially, "it wasn't about getting something from the Germans. But do we have a card we can now play? Yes." That card may be "Go directly to jail." As U.S. preparations for a war with Iraq heat up, the Administration may use the spat as a cudgel to keep the German leader quiet. "They want Schröder in a box protectively," says a top White House aide.

The Bush team spent most of the week letting the Germans know the exact dimensions of that box. In addition to Rumsfeld's rebuffs, there are rumors that Bush has put the kibosh on meetings between U.S. officials and their German counterparts — though FBI director Robert Mueller did meet in Berlin with German security officials — and that Bush may decline a bilateral meeting with Schröder at the November NATO summit in Prague.

 


A disinterested oberver might be forgiven for thinking that Bush would have some sympathy for the beleaguered Chancellor. Schröder fought an incredibly close campaign — in the end, he won by less than 9,000 votes, thanks to a surprisingly strong showing from Fischer's Green Party. If Schröder made some remarks that now seem shallow and opportunistic, who can blame him? Surely not Bush, who knows what it's like to live with an uncomfortably thin margin of victory and who had no qualms about allowing his surrogates to savage his opponent John McCain when the outcome of the Feb. 2000 Republican primary in South Carolina was in doubt.

But Berlin and Washington should be wary of how long they let this tiff drag on. Schröder, for one, can't afford to be isolated — from the U.S. or from his European Union partners — after spending his first term in office gently reasserting a German return to normality in foreign policy. His campaign talk of a "German way" in international affairs was perceived as a deliberate snub to the E.U.'s nascent common foreign and security policy. And Schröder went down this German path all by himself, without consulting his closest European partners. Talk about unilateralism! Such antics are expected from Paris. But from Berlin?

Schröder knows that a cold war of words with Washington won't be good for German business. Trade between the U.S. and Germany — the first and third largest economies in the world, respectively — totals some $90 billion a year. "We urgently have to repair relations with America," said Klaus Braeunig of the Federation of German Industry. "Every seventh job in Germany is dependent on the car industry. We want our American friends to keep buying German cars."

A long estrangement from the Germans is not in American interests either. Though the U.S. is clearly capable of taking out Saddam alone, Bush will need allies both during and after the fight. Indeed, the toughest battles may in fact be fought on the streets of Berlin, Paris and London, where public opinion is overwhelmingly against war. And after Saddam is gone, the White House will sorely need help keeping the peace (not to mention paying for it) as it sketches a new political future for Iraq. The Europeans — the Germans prominent among them — have already shown a willingness to take on this task in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan. So the Administration needs friends too.

As the testosterone levels began to subside, Schröder did offer up some concessions. First, Justice Minister Däubler-Gmelin was told there is no place for her in the new cabinet and she resigned. Then Defense Minister Struck unveiled a plan for the Germans and Dutch to take over joint command of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan in January. The Germans hope this will reassure the U.S. of their support for the war on terror, but Washington initially rejected the plan.

Despite these conciliatory gestures, Schröder showed no sign of backing off his stance on Iraq. "As part of a friendship, it must be possible to have different opinions," he said. "This difference in view will remain." It would be politically difficult for the Chancellor to say anything else so soon after the election. What really matters is what he says and does if — or when — America strikes Iraq. Given the fact that his winning margin came from the antiwar vote, though, Schröder might not be able to shift his position without triggering a massive domestic crisis.

Right on cue, the Bush Administration began making noises about giving Schröder a second chance. Speaking to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week, Secretary of State Powell admitted that "a serious breach occurred," but went on to say that "we have been good friends with Germany for many years, we will remain good friends in the years to come."

While it's clear that this dispute can't — and won't — be allowed to permanently sabotage relations, it's equally clear that it's more than just a case of hurt feelings. Schröder has a lot of work to do to restore German credibility. "The rules of diplomacy will start to take over," says a senior Administration official. "But [Bush and Schröder] are never going to share toothpaste." Fair enough. As long as they kiss and make up.