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What Are Friends For?

Great expectations from the Bush-Merkel alliance.

12:00 AM, Jul 24, 2006 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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FIRST CAME THE INFORMALITIES: After spending some 30 minutes alone with Germany's new chancellor Angela Merkel last January, President Bush announced to a delegation that from now on, "I'm George and she's Angela." Then came more hugs and kisses in Washington this past May and, two weeks ago, in Merkel's home district of Stralsund. But on July 16 in St. Petersburg, the closeness between the two leaders reached a whole new level. Inside Konstantinovsky Palace, Merkel sat at a table, talking with Italy's Romano Prodi, when Bush came from behind and gave die Kanzlerin a massage just below the neck. According to the photos, Merkel was initially startled and raised her arms. There's a look of horror on her face. But Bush's backrub lasted only a few seconds before he moved on. Merkel then realized who touched her and flashed an awkward smile.

So maybe she prefers Shiatsu. Or maybe the president overstepped his boundaries. As it is, Bild magazine is already calling Merkel "Bush's girlfriend." As a symbolic gesture, however, could this be Bush's way of saying I'll rub your back if you rub mine? If so, some are speculating the gesture will not exactly be returned.

No one doubts a closeness exists between the leaders of these two countries for the first time since before the run-up to the Iraq war. Bush's recent trip--lasting all of 36 hours--is his longest yet to Germany and was certainly more amenable than his previous foray, in February 2005, to Mainz, which resembled less a state visit than a prison lockdown. At Trinwillershagen two weeks ago, Bush was feted with what one German diplomat described as a "rustic buffet" that included grilled venison, duck, and a 60-pound roast pig, which the president sliced himself. He met with (hand-picked) locals and was given a barrel of pickled herring as a gift. The 5,000-expected demonstrators turned out to number fewer than 500 and were kept well away--thanks, in part, to the more than 12,000-strong police force. Merkel is now expected to return the favor by visiting Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.

At the same time, tensions continue to linger on both the policy and public opinion levels. Much has already been made over the allegations of secret CIA prisons in Europe, the detainment of German citizen Khaled Masri, and Guantánamo. And when it comes to Iran, though Bush has committed himself to close cooperation with the EU-3, he is itching for more action. The Europeans were clearly hopeful the Iranians would accept the latest package of incentives in order to prevent them from enriching and reprocessing uranium. "This is an extremely attractive package," said a senior German diplomat. "I can't really imagine what more one can do. . . . I don't know what more we can offer." The Iranians have since postponed a decision on this incentives package, leading to calls by the Bush administration for the U.N. Security Council to enact tough sanctions. Will Germany be ready? One highly placed German source says yes, that Germany is prepared to make sacrifices and is even bracing for an oil embargo, though no timetable has been set. "[Merkel] will support sanctions, as she acknowledges that a nuclear bomb in Tehran is a threat to Europe as well," says Horst von Buttlar, a political commentator for Financial Times Deutschland. He adds that "sanctions are, generally speaking, a political instrument that is popular in German public opinion."

But as Professor Werner Weidenfeld, a member of the Bertelsmann Foundation's executive board and director of the Center for Applied Policy Research in Munich, explains, "If the United States decided on any form of military intervention, it seems very unlikely that George W.'s new 'best friend' Angela could convince the Germans (and her partners in government) to give significant support."

Public opinion in Germany, meanwhile, remains largely unchanged despite the blossoming friendship between Merkel and Bush: A Pew Research poll released last month shows only 37 percent of Germans having a favorable opinion of the United States. An April poll by the Forsa Institute indicated 45 percent of Germans consider the United States more of a threat to world peace than Iran. In other words, attitudes across the Atlantic have not changed much since Gerhard Schröder left office. (Last year's Transatlantic Trends poll, a comprehensive study funded in part by the German Marshall Fund of the United States, had Bush's disapproval rating among Germans at 83 percent--a number exceeded only by that among the French.)

With such stark contrasts in mind, how much can be realistically expected? As Jürgen Rüttgers, the governor of North Rhine Westphalia, explained to me a few months ago, "There is a German-American friendship. It is important and a large majority of Germans want to have it. They are fascinated by America. They love America." On the other hand, he said, "that doesn't mean they have to accept everything that happens in America, especially in the area of human rights, e.g., Guantánamo, or on the question of environmental protection. We have differences of opinion. But friends may have differing opinions. It is the difference in communication between friends and opponents. Friends never question the goodwill of the other partner. And if your friend has made a mistake, you try to help them. And vice versa."

"Any attempt to frame the good personal relationship between Merkel and Bush as a complete overhaul of the transatlantic relationship must result in mutual disappointment," says Werner Weidenfeld. "In the long run, Merkel won't manage to have a real impact on the American foreign policy agenda. And Americans tend to overestimate what Merkel could actually deliver given the constraints of a coalition government and the German political system." Germany is still suffering from massive unemployment--particularly in the former East--and is in the midst of debating painful welfare and health care reforms. Besides, says Weidenfeld, "the focus on the personal relationship also distracts from fundamental differences in the transatlantic relationship that need to be tackled--over issues such as risk and threat assessment, the willingness and determination to spend money on the military and to actually use it in combat or the definition of preemption."

When Horst von Buttlar is asked about the importance of the Merkel-Bush friendship, he counters by asking if the relationship between Bush and Schröder mattered. "It did, as we all know." Von Buttlar points out that "a few years ago nobody dared to hope that a German chancellor would be having a barbecue with Bush in some ancient communistic model-village [Trinwillershagen]. Although it was well staged, I think style is also substance in international relations. We have a new modus vivendi that will help to shape a policy in certain issues. . . . In Lebanon there is already a common ground: Both Germany and the United States think that Israel should be allowed to proceed a little further." At least for now.

Victorino Matus is an assistant managing editor at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.