To hear German officials tell it, it won't take long to heal the rift that developed between Washington and Berlin during Gerhard Schroeder's campaign for re-election as chancellor. "I'd be very surprised if we had a prolonged crisis of confidence," a senior German diplomat told The Washington Post. Adds Wolfgang Ischinger, Berlin's ambassador to the United States: "I cannot believe that our two governments … cannot find a way together again to move forward."
Believe it. German politicians and diplomats, and indeed the German people, greatly underestimate the rancor that exists in Washington over Schroeder's vitriolic election campaign, which was tarnished by crude anti-American polemic of the lowest common denominator. Schroeder questioned U.S. motives over a potential war with Iraq, and declared, in a reference to German funding for the first Gulf War, that "we're not available for adventures, and the time of checkbook diplomacy is over once and for all."
In particular, the remarks made by former Justice Minister Herta Daubler-Gmelin comparing President Bush to Adolf Hitler in the 1930s, caused deep-seated anger in the United States. Schroeder's refusal to condemn the comments reflected his inability and unwillingness to confront political extremism within his own Social Democratic Party.
One of the first priorities of the new German administration will be to repair the immense damage done to U.S.-German relations.
Ambassador Ischinger has his work cut out for him. As Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld put it, the U.S.-German relationship has been "poisoned," making a mockery of the Clinton administration's claim that Germany had become America's number one ally in Europe. This is a genuine crisis that won't be mended with empty platitudes from Berlin.
Crucially, Berlin has squandered much of the goodwill it garnered in the United States over its support for Washington through NATO immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks. NATO took a courageous step at that time. It invoked Article V of the Washington Treaty, which recognizes that an attack against one NATO member represents an attack against all. With this stance, all the NATO countries committed themselves to fighting the war on terrorism.
The failure of the German government to continue standing with its NATO allies in confronting a major state sponsor of terrorism raises serious doubts about its commitment to the anti-terrorism war. While fledgling members of the alliance, including Poland and the Czech Republic, eagerly offer their services in defending the West against the threat posed by the Iraqi regime, Germany, one of NATO's oldest and most powerful members, is unwilling to fight alongside its allies.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the recent election was the German public's acquiescence in the anti-American rhetoric of the country's leaders, and their willingness to allow a domestic contest to be turned into a referendum on the Bush administration's foreign policy. The polls clearly demonstrated that as Schroeder's anti-U.S. rhetoric intensified over the course of the campaign, his popularity went up.
The election result also symbolizes the huge gulf that exists between the United States and Germany. While the American public overwhelmingly recognizes Saddam Hussein's regime as an evil dictatorship that poses a growing threat that must be dealt with, German voters appear willing to look the other way. Armed with self-righteous arrogance, they questioned the moral authority of the United States to liberate the people of Iraq and to take military action to defend itself and the free world.
The onus now is upon Chancellor Schroeder and Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer to demonstrate that Germany is serious about being a key ally of the United States. Germany's offer to take over the leadership of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan is a welcome step in the right direction.
The new German administration will need to do more to convince its critics that it is taking the evidence of the growing threat posed by Iraq's weapons of mass destruction seriously. Otherwise, Germany risks standing in splendid isolation in both Europe and on the international stage. Its opposition to war, even one backed by the United Nations, jeopardizes not only its relations with Washington, but with London and Paris as well.
The tide is turning against the Iraqi regime internationally, and Germany has a clear choice: either it can join in what will be one of the biggest coalitions ever assembled to remove a dictatorship from power, or it can stand alone in pursuing its misguided policy of appeasement.
Dr. Nile Gardiner is a visiting fellow in Anglo-American security policy at The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org), where Baker Spring is the F.M. Kirby research fellow in national security policy.
Distributed nationally on the Scripps Howard wire.