Breakfast mit Joschka
Germany's foreign minister discusses Israel, America, and Europe over eggs, bacon, and muesli.
12:00 AM, May 2, 2002 • By VICTORINO MATUS
I'M ABOUT to make a stereotypical remark, so bear with me: I was running late to a press breakfast yesterday morning--by five minutes. Normally, this isn't a big deal since there's a ten minute lag time for late-comers and media-types who love gabbing in the foyers before getting dragged into a conference room. But this was a breakfast at the German ambassador's residence. Which meant that the meeting would begin at precisely 8:30.
It was 8:30 on the dot when I arrived at the embassy gates, which nearly crushed my car. The gates were half open when I got out to tell the guard I was there for the press breakfast. "Zat iss on ze ozer side!" he exclaimed. (And I promise you that is my last attempt at German accents in print.) I leapt back into my car and zipped through the Foxhall neighborhood in northwest D.C., and miraculously found the entrance to Ambassador Ischinger's residence, high up on a hill overlooking Washington. The hulkish German security agents welcomed me in and I was immediately greeted by an attractive Teutonic hostess who informed me they had just started. It was 8:34.
I was escorted into their Great Hall, a wonderful room with wall-sized abstract paintings on one side, and a spectacular view of the District on the other. In the center was the linen-draped dining table gleaming with silver. Everything, from the chairs to the plates to the glassware, was modern. I sat down just in time for our host to say, "Well, shall we eat first?" We then proceeded to the buffet tables.
A tricky thing, these press briefings combined with buffets. Of course it's not a one-time deal, compelling you to pile it high and fill your pockets. But who wants to go up for seconds or thirds in the middle of diplomatic discourse? After all, we are in the post-Kohl era of German politics. So I tried to make the most of my plate--without making it look like a trip to the Cattleman's buffet in Vegas.
Having lived one summer with a German family, I was quite familiar with this type of breakfast. Nothing too fancy. No omelet bar or carving station. At the ambassador's residence, it was exactly as I imagined: The bacon strips were lean and formed into flat circles. The eggs were golden and super-scrambled, as if run through a blender. And of course, there's the muesli: Oats, nuts, granolas, and berries that you can mix with a vanilla yogurt. I admit, despite my carnivorous tendencies, that muesli is a crunchfest to be enjoyed. But the highlight of any German breakfast is the cold-cuts: a vast selection of hams and salamis, mortadella, Kantwurst, you name it. (Maybe the Kohl era really isn't over.)
So why was I there? Our guest was none other than Germany's foreign minister, Joschka Fischer. He is in D.C. meeting with his EU counterparts as well as with Colin Powell and other members of the administration. And this morning he's decided to take our questions--95 percent of which have to do with the Middle East.
The Germans have decided to get involved in the peace process, even at a time when the Israelis and Palestinians could not be further apart. But it's Fischer's belief that Europe and the United States must at least try--he claims that the failed Powell trip to the Middle East was in fact a positive step and that the secretary of state will probably be back. "From the very beginning," says Fischer, "I knew it was a risky trip for Colin." He calls the crisis a "tragic conflict" and says even a superpower cannot singlehandedly solve it. But he notes that Powell's attempt sent good signals to the Europeans.
Fischer believes a Palestinian state should be declared "on provisional grounds" and not include the disputed territories or Jerusalem (at first). It would just be a starting point. He calls Israel's behavior (namely its blocking U.N. observers in Jenin) "not helpful to the friends of Israel" but also states that from what he has seen and read, there is, as of now, "no sign of a massacre." (At this moment, a fellow journalist gets up out of his seat and proceeds to the buffet for seconds. How audacious! He returns to his seat with nonchalance and a plate of fruit. No one else joins him.)
I asked Fischer about Germany's commitment to Israel in spite of rumblings that the Europeans were ready to issue an arms embargo. With utmost seriousness he says that the embargo "was never going to happen." Fischer spoke about his own personal commitment to the "continuing existence of Israel," echoing the sentiments of his chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, who just the other day talked of the "historic responsibility" of Germans when it comes to defending Israel.
As for the strained transatlantic relationship, Fischer threw a curveball: "My overall assessment is that the relationship between the United States and Europe depends on Europe. If anything, we need more of the United States and less of Europe. In a way, we are 200 years behind you--we're only now getting to the 'Federalist Papers.'" (Fischer once said that whenever he visits America, he heads for the Barnes and Noble and straight to the Founders and Constitution aisle.)
But there was something else I wanted to ask the minister. Something that would've been wholly inappropriate during this formal breakfast. I wanted to ask him about his diet. At 5 feet and 11 inches tall, Fischer used to weigh a hefty 246 pounds. His diet, as reported in the Washington Post, included "sausage, ham, cheese, eggs, fried potatoes, bread, butter and jam--just for breakfast. Then I would have an opulent lunch with only a slight twinge of guilt, followed by curry wurst and French fries as an afternoon snack, before really cutting loose with an enormous dinner without any concern about calories or my health." Perhaps saddest of all, Fischer once explained, "I fell into the habit of thinking how so many problems could be settled over a good meal."
We've all been there, pal.
But the new Joschka is an exercise nut, running daily, and staying away from the curry wurst. And he weighs roughly 165 pounds. But how has the crisis since September 11 affected him? At the meeting's conclusion, I cornered him and popped the question. He looked at me sternly, his assistant smiled nervously. Then he said, "You know, I still average around 14 kilometers a day. And maybe 40 kilometers a week. I do them at intervals. But last September, I was in my office at one time for 48 hours straight. It was terrible."
How much does he eat for breakfast? I couldn't tell. He skipped it.
Victorino Matus is an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard.