The winter of Germany's discontent.

Author:Walker, Martin

An old saying in Central Europe holds that in Vienna the situation is always hopeless but never serious, while in Berlin it is always serious but never hopeless. These days it seems that the German chancellor is always embattled but always survives, whereas few can really even name the Austrian chancellor, even when the news is positive--as in the one-sided electoral victory last November of Austria's centrists, resulting in the virtual collapse of xenophobic nationalists. In Berlin, by contrast, a narrow electoral victory by Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was followed by a mini-crisis in relations with Washington, and a domestic uproar over the chancellor's proposals to hike still higher taxes in a country mired in persistent stagnation. However serious these situations, they did not yet seem hopeless for a left-of-center Social Democrat of Clintonian tactical skill. Schroeder may even--just--be able to have it both ways in his troubled relations with the Bush administration: keep an independent course on any war with Iraq, while narrowing the breach caused by his campaign warnings about American "adventurism."

The problem is that Schroeder is a better tactician than strategist, as he confirmed last September in winning a second term for his Social Democratic-Green coalition. Running on a wretched economic record, he faced clear defeat, even while most voters and commentators understood that there was little a chancellor or a modern government could do against a global lurch toward recession. But the sudden devastation of the cities along the banks of the river Elbe in August showed Schroeder at his telegenic best, dashing to the scene, demonstrating his personal concern and empathy, offering comfort and promises of government aid and cash. From a desperate 8-10 point deficit in the opinion polls, he narrowed the gap to just 4-5 points. Then came what one Schroeder adviser described privately as "the miracle," the speech of Vice President Dick Cheney to the Veterans of Foreign Wars on August 26. Cheney affirmed that the Bush administration was prepared to launch a unilateral preemptive military attack upon Iraq, in the belief that neither of the Cold War strategies of containment or deterrence could prevail against such a foe. "Old doctrines of security do not apply," Cheney argued. "Time is not on our side."

The speech made a considerable stir in the United States. In Europe in general, and in Germany in particular, its effect was devastating, amplified by a media that had already portrayed the Bush administration as contemptuous of its allies. It was delivered the day after the first television debate between Schroeder and his conservative Christian Democratic opponent, Bavarian premier Edmund Stoiber. Iraq had been a relatively minor issue. Most press reports suggested that Stoiber had been impressive, that his attacks on Schroeder's economic stewardship had hit home, and that Schroeder had lost the debate. In this context, Schroeder found in the aggressive Cheney speech the occasion to relaunch his campaign, and above all to woo back his disaffected left-wing and pacifist supporters. Just as he found a crisis where he could make a difference in the floods, suddenly Schroeder was offered an opportunity to make a difference as an international statesman. He called a press conference in which he said Cheney's spe ech was "a mistake," and then said in a television interview that it was "wrong of Washington to change the original goal" of trying to get the United Nations weapons inspectors back into Iraq. On the same day, his foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, of the Green Party, told Deutschlandfunk Radio that a preemptive U.S. strike could lead to a new order in the Middle East. "There is a big question as to whether this consequence has been thought through and discussed in the U.S."

There was a clear element of political calculation in Schroeder's increasingly critical remarks of the Bush administration's policies, spurred by his political advisers who argued that he could win votes from eastern Germany and the openly anti-American and pacifist PDS party, the somewhat reformed heirs of the old East German Communists. But there is no doubt that Schroeder believed what he was saying about Iraq. On March 13, six months before the election, he told a group of German intellectuals, in an informal conversation at the Chancellery, that Germany would only back U.S. military action against Iraq under a United Nations mandate. That was also the occasion when Schroeder said that even if war broke out, he would keep the modest German unit of six "Fuchs" nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) reconnaissance tanks and 52 soldiers stationed in Kuwait. "To withdraw them would be to set back German-American relations for the next 30 years," he argued.

Schroeder first used the derisive term military "adventure" on August 4, long before the issue was prominent in the election campaign. By then, he had begun to notice that his antiwar arguments were becoming highly effective applause lines. On August 6, the Berlin-based Forsa Institute for Opinion Research released an opinion poll in which 84 percent of Germans rejected the idea of their country participating in a conflict in Iraq, with only 13 percent supporting it.

Schroeder, the first German leader since 1945 to have deployed his country's troops abroad, seemed an unlikely candidate to be the standard bearer of the peace movement. Since his 1998 election campaign, he had vowed to make Germany "a normal nation" in global terms, able to deploy troops on peacekeeping missions and to act as freely on the world stage as Britain or France. Breaching the long taboo in postwar Germany against military action was politically costly. In the autumn of 2001, Schroeder had to resort to an unprecedented and risky vote of confidence to force his reluctant pacifist Bundestag members to swallow the dispatch of German special forces to Afghanistan.

In 1999, he sent German warplanes to join the operations against Serbia, and German troops to Kosovo, and later to Macedonia. Having succeeded in cases where the United States wanted German support, Schroeder might have expected some more latitude from Washington when he felt the cause was dubious. Nor did Schroeder feel isolated. In the weeks before President Bush's appearance at the United Nations General Assembly on September 12, there were many American voices urging Bush to work with the United Nations and his allies, rather than invade Iraq unilaterally. The three Democrats best known in Europe, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and Sen. Edward Kennedy, all gave speeches suggesting a multilateral course, a view echoed by Brent Scowcrofr and James Baker, stalwarts of the first Bush administration.

Schroeder vs. Bush

Iraq and relations with the United States had become the most urgent election issue by the time of the second televised debate between Schroeder and Stoiber on September 8. Stoiber challenged Schroeder for failing to talk to the White House about his objections, stressing that previous Social Democratic chancellors like Willy Brandt would never have put the American alliance at risk in such a way. But Stoiber's own reading of the opinion polls and sense of the antiwar mood of the German electorate meant that he too refused to endorse Bush's policies, adding that he might even refuse the Americans the use of German air bases. His hesitancy, contrasted with Schroeder's clear antiwar stand, meant that Stoiber was widely seen to have lost the second debate.

The political atmosphere, in the final days of an election campaign with Schroeder steadily overhauling Stoiber in the opinion polls, was tense and heated. On September 20, two days before Germans went to the polls, the White House released Bush's new national security doctrine, which reinforced German doubts about American leadership. This coincided with another drama. Justice Minister Herta...

To continue reading