TCS Daily

Cowboys in Deutschland

By John Rosenthal - July 21, 2006 12:00 AM

As the date of his arrival approached, the prospect of George W. Bush on German soil unleashed a veritable frenzy of outrage and condemnation. Die Zeit, the country's most influential weekly of ostensibly educated opinion, plastered across its front page a mocking caricature of the President dressed in cowboy gear striding through Berlin's Brandenburg Gate. Inside, it published a collection of "open letters" to the President from some of Germany's most well-known intellectuals and cultural figures. The Zeit editors noted with evident pride that their authors had found "clear words" for the President, and even if the words as such were not in fact always so clear, the tone -- ranging essentially from the extremely insulting to the outright threatening -- was unmistakable.

Admonishing Bush for his allegedly bellicose vocabulary, the novelist Sibylle Berg wrote, for instance: "Please George, don't cry. Stand up straight like an American. And an American only cries when his flag does not wave, like on the moon or in piles of rubble...". The actor Gerd Voss encouraged his fellow Germans to behave "less abjectly toward this Texan sheriff." Voss's colleague Josef Bierbichler, three times the German theater's "Actor of the Year", mused darkly: "But time is always metamorphosing into itself. Yes. Like money. Or as Fascism metamorphoses into civilization and vice-versa -- or precisely Hitler into Bush." And in a letter addressed to "Dear George," Christoph Schlingensief, the darling of German "alternative" theatre and creator of artistic "happenings," admitted to having "played with the idea of quite simply blowing you up at our next meeting."

With Germany's intellectual and cultural elite having publicly worked itself into such a fine lather over the Bush visit, one could hardly expect the masses of the German "Left" to miss the excellent opportunity that the visit presented for venting their rage. Tens of thousands of protestors filled the streets all across Germany -- more than a 100,000 according to the protest organizers.

But that was in May 2002: on the occasion of George W. Bush's first visit to Germany. It should be noted that these protests occurred a mere eight months after the September 11 attacks. The American-led invasion of Iraq -- supposed, in the conventional narrative, to have been Bush's greatest sin in the eyes of German and European public opinion -- was at the time no more than a subject of rumor and speculation. (Indeed, such rumor-mongering would massively contribute to making the Iraq War later a reality, since in sparking an odd sort of "preventive" anti-war movement in Europe, it helped to convince Saddam Hussein that European opposition to the military option had relieved him of the need to make concessions.) It is interesting in retrospect to read a May 24th report from Berlin's most widely-read daily, the Berliner Zeitung, on the President's message to the German people:

The President called on Germany and Europe to join in a determined struggle against terrorism: "we must be resolute in fighting the enemies of freedom." He assured his listeners that the USA had at the moment no concrete military plans against Iraq. The Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein must, however, be prevented from acquiring weapons of mass destruction.

Aha.... So, it was a question of acquiring weapons of mass destruction. In his joint press conference with the President, however, then German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder narrowly framed the matter in terms of actual possession of WMD ("what weapons of mass destruction can be found in his hands"). It would, of course, be this highly simplified version of the American administration's rationale for going to war that would subsequently provide the standard spin in the European, as well as much of the American, media -- and that has been used to beat the administration ever since.

When President Bush visited current German Chancellor Angela Merkel's home electoral district of Stralsund last week, the mood was considerably less fevered. A coalition of "leftist" groups had dutifully called for a "Not Welcome, Mr. Bush" demonstration in the eastern German coastal town. Organizer Monty Schädel confidently predicted that some 5,000 protestors would heed the call. Only a few hundred did. (The German public television channel ZDF, which provided disproportionately ample and obviously sympathetic coverage of the protestors, put their number at "around 800.") Some had apparently dusted off their signs from 2002 for the occasion: "George W. Bush: Nr. 1 Terrorist" (see here from ZDF) was still a favorite.

Die Zeit now adopted conciliatory tones -- even if accompanied by a persistent and condescending undertone suggesting that the President had earned this favorable treatment by changing his ways and obediently following die Zeit's own prescriptions for American foreign policy. Thus, long-time Zeit co-editor Josef Joffe wrote that Angela Merkel was "meeting a President who had lost his illusions and learned that democratic ideals and strategic interests are two different things.... The muscular unilateralism is now a thing of the past -- and no wonder. There is no weighty interest that does not require friends or at least partners." Thereby, as has been his habit, Joffe ignored the fact that Germany figured among only a small minority of NATO countries that did not contribute to the American-led intervention in Iraq -- to say nothing of the many non-NATO countries that also contributed. (See my article "Fabricated Outrage" for some related background and an earlier example from Joffe.) The word "unilateral" in the vocabulary of Josef Joffe apparently bears the rather idiosyncratic meaning of "without Germany."

It was remarkable just how relaxed the President was on his latest visit to Germany -- more relaxed than one will have seen him in public in the US in a long time. Asked by an AP reporter what he thought of Vladimir Putin's dismissal of Dick Cheney's recent criticisms as a "missed shot on a hunting trip," Bush responded cheerfully: "It was pretty clever. Actually, quite humorous -- not to dis my friend, the Vice President." The principal reason for the President being so at ease stood a few yards to his right: the German Chancellor.

The New York Times reported that Merkel "in part echoed" President Bush's affirmation of Israel's right to self-defense in connection with the current Hezbollah-provoked Middle East crisis and quoted her as saying -- "in remarks rendered by an interpreter" -- that "the parties to that conflict obviously have to use proportionate means, but I am not at all for sort of blurring the lines between the root causes and the consequences of an action." But the Chancellor did not merely "echo" the President's words and the "rendering" cited by the Times does not accurately reflect what she in fact said (German transcript here). Firstly, it is necessary to know some context that the Times fails to provide: Merkel was asked whether she agreed with French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy's criticism of the Israeli military response to Hezbollah as "disproportionate." This is what she said:

"As concerns the crisis in the Middle East, in particular now in connection with Lebanon, as far as I am concerned, one has always to be careful not to confuse cause and effect. The point of departure is the kidnapping of soldiers and the point of departure is also the actions of Hezbollah."

She then added in an obvious -- and obviously skeptical -- allusion to the terms of the original question:

"We can only call on the parties involved to maintain a sense of proportion [Augenmaß zu wahren]. But I'm not with you if it is a matter of confusing cause and effect. The point of departure has to be fixed. There needs to be action taken: and not from the Israeli side, but rather from the side of those who started with the attacks."

These are "clear words", and the American President has reason to be cheerful that he has an ally in Merkel who is capable of them.

But before celebrating a new epoch of German-American understanding, it should be recalled that the current German government does not speak with one voice on foreign policy matters. As part of the compromise that brought it into being, long-time Gerhard Schröder confidant Frank-Walter Steinmeier was made foreign affairs minister. Almost as soon as President Bush and Chancellor Merkel had finished their press conference, Steinmeier appeared on ZDF giving his own assessment of the current crisis. (Video here.) For him, the Hezbollah kidnappings and the Israeli military response were not cause and effect that had not to be confused, but simply a "first escalation" and a "second escalation." Steinmeier indeed said what Merkel deliberately had not -- i.e. that Israel "must use proportionate means" in reacting to the Hezbollah acts -- and he condemned Israeli military actions as not meeting this criterion.

John Rosenthal's writings on international politics have appeared in Policy Review, the Opinion Journal, Les Temps Modernes and Merkur. He is the editor of the Transatlantic Intelligencer (


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