German course set by Bush I

Irony: The stronger, unified country that now feels it can defy the U.S. president on Iraq is the one that the president's father helped create in 1989.

October 06, 2002|By Joseph R.L. Sterne | Joseph R.L. Sterne,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A DOZEN YEARS ago, an American president named George Bush was the toast of all Germany. Alone among top foreign leaders, he had championed the reunification of West and East Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989. More than any other non-German, he made reunification happen.

Today, ironically, another American president named George Bush is "toast" in the united Germany his father helped to create.

Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder trumpeted his opposition to Bush II's belligerence toward Iraq in a successful ploy to win re-election two weeks ago. His stance was so popular among Germans that his more conservative opponent did not dare challenge it in substance.

When one of Schroeder's Cabinet officers (since fired) went so far as to compare the second Bush's drum-beating policies to Hitler's, the White House was outraged and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said the U.S.-German relationship had been "poisoned." He refused to meet with the German defense minister, Peter Struck.

Predictably, efforts to mend the rift between these two allies are under way. Continued animosity is in the interest of neither country. It would be a mistake, however, to pass off the dispute as just one of those irritations that roil the friendliest of nations. If Americans are to understand fundamental changes in the German scene, they had better take a dispassionate look at what this bitter exchange symbolizes.

Schroeder is the first leader of his nation who came to office without fear of Soviet attack. For all of his predecessors, from Konrad Adenauer to Helmut Kohl, the Communist threat was the beginning and the end of German foreign policy. Each chancellor, despite the nuances that agitated Bonn's hothouse politics, made it his business to hover under the American nuclear umbrella while trying to avoid angering the Russians.

Before the fall of the wall, West Germany was the quintessential status-quo power - a middle-sized power at flash point in the middle of the superpowers' Cold War. If the war turned hot, German territory on both sides of the Elbe would be devastated. Burdened with the shame of the Nazi legacy and fearful of annihilation, this once-militant nation turned pacifist in its basic instincts. (It still is.)

While German politicians were obeisant to the distant dream of national reunification, none believed it would happen for decades, if ever. Nor were they prepared to fight for it.

The German world, the European world, indeed the whole geo-strategic world was turned upside down with the sudden unforeseen collapse of the Communist East German regime (and, two years later, its Soviet senior partner). What needs to be recalled at this juncture is the central role of President George Bush I in uniting the two Germanys.

The French were against it, even to the point of sending their president to tottering East Berlin to proclaim his support for two separate German states. The British were against it. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, apprehensive of German domination on the continent, said her inability to prevent reunification was her greatest failure.

In contrast, Bush I rallied to Kohl's side in defying his NATO allies and his Warsaw Pact opponents. A year later, as formal reunification went into effect, Kohl paid "special tribute" to the president.

"Thanks to his vision, statesmanship and dedication, it became possible for us to realize the dream of freedom and unity for all Germans," the exuberant chancellor declared.

Contrast this to the situation today between Washington and Berlin. Taking a more extreme tack than any other friendly power, Schroeder has declared he will not support a war to topple Saddam Hussein even if it is sanctioned by the United Nations. And while letting it be known that he would welcome a White House invitation, he has not altered his stance. It has been left to his diplomats, as one put it, to find a way to bring him in from the cold.

What's really happening is Germany's steady emergence as a "normal country," throwing off the psychological burdens of its Nazi past, and throwing around its weight as a nation of 80 million people with almost double the gross national product of Britain.

Schroeder, like Britain's Tony Blair, is a product of the modern European center-left, even though they are on opposite sides over Iraq. They favor market economies, more reliance on the private sector, even some privatization of government operations. When he was first elected chancellor by defeating Kohl in 1998, Schroeder's campaign theme was German "self-confidence." The government, he said, should become "more German" in its policies.

Schroeder pleased the Clinton administration (and angered the left wing of his Social Democratic Party) when he broke with post-war tradition to send German troops on a peacekeeping assignment in Kosovo.

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