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Jewish World Review Sept. 30, 2002 / 24 Tishrei, 5764

John H. Fund

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Schroeder did what it took to win--but at what cost to Germany? | BERLIN Germany and the U.S. have enjoyed a special relationship for over 50 years, born out of Cold War necessity and German appreciation for American generosity after World War II. But not anymore. The relationship has been "poisoned," in the words of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, by Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's bitter, and successful, re-election campaign.

This isn't likely to fade now that the election is over. No one who followed the news in the days before Sunday's German elections could wonder why. Mr. Schroeder, seeing his Social Democratic Party trailing by up to seven points in the polls in July, decided to pander to the pacifist, anti-American element of his electorate. Even though Washington had not asked Berlin for any help against Iraq, Mr. Schroeder suddenly decided opposing America's stand against Saddam offered his best chance at distracting the voters from his broken promise to create more jobs.

The strategy seemed to work. He changed the focus of the campaign by telling cheering crowds that he would not "click his heels" to do Washington's bidding. He vowed that Germany would not participate in any intervention in Iraq, even if the United Nations authorized it. "The Middle East has too much war, it needs more peace," he declared--and never mind that Saddam Hussein started two of the region's bloodiest recent wars by attacking Iran and Kuwait.

Bill Clinton has admired Mr. Schroeder for his effortless ability to change his positions for tactical advantage, and Mr. Schroeder knew exactly what he was doing. It's no secret that he has no love for President Bush. A "pathological opportunist," in the words of Jeffrey Gedmin of the Aspen Institute, the chancellor decided that putting a little strain in the Washington-Berlin relationship was a price worth paying for a second term.

It worked. The coalition of Social Democrats and Greens won a narrow nine-seat majority by pulling votes away from the Party of Democratic Socialism, the old East German Communist Party. Exit polls show a critical 290,000 voters abandoned the PDS for Mr. Schroeder's SDP after he unleashed his antiwar rhetoric. Those voters not only saved Mr. Schroeder's government but more or less eliminated the PDS as a future competitor for left-wing votes.

But the Schroeder victory has come at a high cost. "He didn't seem to calculate that he could be opening a Pandora's box of skepticism about the American relationship," Mr. Gedmin said in a speech to the Friedrich Naumann Foundation. Mr. Schroeder's Washington-bashing brought out latent anti-American feelings among top Social Democrats. The leader of its parliamentary group compared Mr. Bush to a Roman emperor. Rudolf Scharping, Mr. Schroeder's defense minister until this summer, told American journalists that the German government believes Mr. Bush wants "regime change" in Iraq to please "a powerful, perhaps overly powerful, Jewish lobby."

Most infamously, Herta Daeubler-Gmelin, Mr. Schroeder's justice minister, told a group of trade unionists that "Bush wants to distract attention from this domestic problems. That's a popular method. Even Hitler did that."

Ms. Dauebler-Gmelin first denied making such statements and then after several members of the audience came forward to confirm them, she made matters worse by saying, "I didn't compare the persons Bush and Hitler, but their methods." Mr. Schroeder at first backed his justice minister's ludicrous denials. But soon that became untenable, so he wrote Mr. Bush a letter that White House press secretary Ari Fleischer noted "read more as an attempt at an explanation" than an apology. With the election won, on Monday Mr. Schroeder chose not to sack Ms. Dauebler-Gmelin but instead accepted her resignation.

The result of the Schroeder gambit has been a distinctly cool response from the Bush White House. Secretary Rumsfeld shunned his German counterpart during a NATO meeting in Poland this week. The State Department patronizingly praised Germany for conducing "a democratic election," as if it were some Third World backwater making the transition from military rule.

The repercussions are likely to go even further, for Mr. Schroeder's anti-Americanism is gaining support here. An exit poll by ARD television found that 41% of voters thought the SPD was on the right track in foreign policy, as opposed to only 27% who sided with the opposition Christian Democrats.

That opposition could be costly for Germany. The U.S. stations more than 70,000 soldiers and airmen at bases in Germany, a holdover from the Cold War. The troops are still there, in part, because of European requests that America not abandon the Continent as it did after World War I. The troops and bases are also a boon for the German economy. But the presence of so many American troops also allows European countries to spend less than 1% of their gross domestic product on defense. That gives America a lot of leverage.

"The Schroeder government has provided the Americans with an excuse to pack up and leave," notes Canadian journalist David Warren. He reports that during the height of Mr. Schroeder's anti-Iraq campaign, U.S. command-and-control military functions and even bombers were shifted from Germany to Britain and elsewhere "to reduce exposure to any Schroeder political stunt."

The American military is a finely tuned, highly mobile operation. Carrier task forces, long-range bombers and forward positioning of military supplies make it capable of operating far more flexibly than in the past. When it became clear that Saudi Arabia was a fickle ally in the wake of Sept. 11, the U.S. was able to move many of its aircraft to a new base in nearby Qatar. Who is to say that some of the formerly communist countries that have joined or seek to join NATO might not be similarly willing to host American military assets?

Mr. Schroeder is certainly trying to repair some of the damage done to the Washington-Berlin relationship. This week he signaled that Germany would be willing to lead some peacekeeping duties in Afghanistan. But there are limits to what he can do. His slender parliamentary majority depends on Green members who come out of the antiwar, anti-American traditions of the 1960s. With a considerably larger majority in Parliament, Mr. Schroeder only narrowly won a no-confidence vote last year when he tried to insert German peacekeepers into Afghanistan. Several Green members refused to vote with him, and the leader of that faction won re-election Sunday despite being dropped from the Green Party's official list of candidates.

Mr. Schroeder thus may find his hands tied if he goes to Parliament again on a key foreign-policy issue. Either he will be unable to assert a strong German foreign policy because of fear of losing the Green members of his coalition, or he will have to depend on the conservative opposition for support--something he would be loath to do.

Mr. Schroeder may have created a climate in which the U.S. and other NATO members will no longer view Germany as a wholly reliable partner in the Western alliance. And contrary to the image of America against the world, other allies are more steady partners in the war against rogue states and terrorism. On Tuesday, Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi gave a ringing speech in support of ousting Saddam Hussein. "Our way of life, our destiny, both as Europeans and Italians, is tied to that of the United States," he told his Parliament.

Mr. Schroeder's Clintonian demagoguery won him an election, but it may also leave Germany--the world's third-largest economy--less trusted by its allies and thus less important in world affairs

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©2001, John H. Fund