Special Report

Bush’s Unlikely Hero

The President of the United States is once again the German Chancellor’s first meister.

By 3.3.04

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Even as the media types went into hyper drive to fawn over the Hollywood glitterati, the weekend's best buddy picture went unnoticed. That honor, I submit, should go to George W. Bush and Gerhard Schroeder, for their all-smiles reunion, after two bitter years, at the White House.

Schroeder, you may remember, is the genial German chancellor ostensibly alienated by Bush's teeth-bared push for war in Iraq, which left Schroeder no option but to pad his poll numbers with liberal doses of anti-Americanism. Never mind that this chronology is precisely backward -- it has already taken hold in the popular consciousness. More threateningly for the president, it has served as ammunition for those arithmetically challenged detractors who insist that no matter how many countries sign on to the U.S.- helmed coalition, unless the Germans, French and Russians grant their hallowed Ja's, Oui's and Da's, it will always be a wickedly "unilateral" enterprise.

There is a good chance, however, that the president could turn a liability into an advantage; indeed, if the administration plays its cards right, Germany could be in the American fold by year's end. And, if recent events are any indication, this is not as far-fetched it may seem.

THOUGH THE TRANSATLANTIC RELATIONSHIP has undoubtedly soured in the last year, Schroeder is now desperate to make amends. That much was obvious during his visit this weekend, when Bush and Schroeder cracked jokes, clapped each other on the back, and made every attempt to gesticulate that they had overcome their differences. Schroeder played up the point in a Sunday interview with the Washington Post, stressing that, whatever their disagreements, he and the president had a "good working relationship." And while he clung to his insistence that Germany would not send troops to Iraq, he said he would not object to a NATO-led stabilization force, and would even contribute to the reconstruction effort in Iraq by forgiving debt, investing in infrastructure, and training Iraqi police officers. Earlier last week, at a speech to the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, Schroeder threw his support behind the United States plan to democratize the Middle East, pledging to work with the U.S. to bring about, in his surprising words, "modernization, democratization, and stability."

Curiously, this approach, cited by the Bush administration as one key rational for war, was only one year ago denounced by Schroeder as "unconvincing." What a difference a year makes. But then, for Schroeder, the past year as been especially unkind -- a punishing political quagmire that makes the president's flub over missing weapons of mass destruction stockpiles look like a triumph of public relations.

IT STARTED OUT PROMISINGLY enough. On the issue of Iraq, the chancellor's impassioned opposition to the use of force struck a popular nerve, launching his landslide victory in the fall 2002 election. But things turned wintry when Germans, their pacifism momentarily pacified, checked the unemployment numbers. What they discovered was that over 9 percent of the country was out of work. It wasn't long before the same voters who eagerly endorsed the chancellor's position on Iraq decided that his feverish anti-war stumping was all calibrated spin, meant to keep the country from seeing the bleak economic picture. Not only were they without paychecks, Germans felt downright cheap.

The backlash was fierce and unanimous. The opposition Christian Democrats scored the politically ailing chancellor, charging him with everything from exploiting the good faith of the German public to wedging off Germany from its strongest trading partner outside Europe. The White House, still smarting from the snub at the United Nations, had long since slammed its doors shut. Schroeder's fellow Social Democrats, meanwhile, grilled him about Agenda 2010, his tough economic reforms, which have already resulted in unpopular pension cuts. And with the economy stunted since 2000, even the reliably left-of-center German press dished out the Bratwurst-treatment. Arguably the biggest blow to Schroeder's popularity came this weekend when, even as he was making nice with the American president, his Social Democrats were getting pummeled in the local elections in Hamburg, a city they had controlled for nearly half a century.

Now, with his party's life on the line -- recent polls show the Social Democrats approval rating is a mere 25 percent; and this in an election year -- Schroeder is desperate to please. And Bush, eager to prove that even Old Europe has a place in his big-tent, can't afford to be stingy. Fortunately, the president holds considerable leverage. For example, his position on the weak value of the dollar, which puts a major cramp on Germany's export-driven economy by making American exports cheaper, could be the life preserver Germany's sinking economy needs. Then there are the prime contracts for reconstruction in Iraq. Despite the initial panning, even by some conservatives, the administration's decision to ban anti-war countries from bidding on prime contracts is increasingly looking like it will pay dividends: it will be the perfect carrot to entice obdurate countries -- Germany, anyone? -- to cooperate.

To be sure, the administration may never be able to boast that Bundeswehr troops are battling Iraqi insurgents shoulder to shoulder with American Marines. But only slightly less sweet will be the ability to claim that Germans are collaborating in the War on Terror; that Germany has split from France -- always an uneasy alliance -- to give up their obstructive ways; and that they are helping to scaffold a stable and prosperous Iraq.

Last weekend's White House visit will fail to convince the president's critics that the transatlantic alliance has been wholly repaired. With tensions over the war still foaming in the wake, even the administration's spin-meisters won't be able to sell the story of the Bush-Schroeder reconciliation as this year's political feel-good. "Stand by Me" it is not. But if the same Gerhard Schroeder who denounced the administration for go-it- alone arrogance continues to cozy up to the president, the script just might write itself.

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About the Author

Jacob Laksin is a writer in New York City.