This Time It’s Personal

After winning his reelection by campaigning on an anti-war platform last fall Gerhard Schroeder is anxious to mend relations with the Bush Administration. He ended his stay in Asia a day early so he could meet Colin Powell on Friday, even though Powell was in Berlin for a informal, ‘working visit’, not an official state visit. Meanwhile George Bush is also cultivating German-American relations, but he is doing so by approaching the German opposition while ostentatiously giving Schroeder the cold shoulder. Roland Koch, Premier of Hesse and a member of the opposition Christian Democrats, had an appointment with Dick Cheney on Thursday when GWB surprisingly joined them for about a quarter of an hour. Bush voiced his concern that Germany seems to put its relations to France ahead of those to America and also didn’t forget to criticize Schroeder for his opposition to the war on Iraq.

In contrast to this he still won’t even talk to Schroeder on the phone, and there also have been hints that as long as Schroeder is Chancellor the climate between both governments is going to remain pretty cold. GWB can’t even be accused of letting this interfere with the war on terror, because cooperation on the military, intelligence and law-enforcement levels works as well as ever (Schroeder’s opposition to the war never went beyond the rhetorical), so Bush is reaping the advantages from that while demonstratively marking time until he gets to meet Schroeder’s successor in office.

Bush’s brief meeting with Koch was interpreted as a personal affront to Schroeder and set the downright cold tone for Powell’s meetings with Schroeder and Foreign Minister Fischer yesterday. Even so they agreed with Powell that the UN sanctions against Iraq should be lifted as soon as possible, to make the proceeds from the sale of Iraqi oil available for reconstruction. This is somewhat surprising since the Bush Administration has so far failed to persuade France and Russia to go along; Russia, especially, insists on having its financial considerations taken into account before it will approve such a resolution. It’s obvious that Schroeder is now inching away from both Putin and Chirac to avoid any further strain on German-American relations, but this won’t be enough to repair the previous damage. Powell demanded more cooperation – both with the reconstruction of Iraq and the war on terror – as a precondition for better relations, but cautioned that it would take time until things could get back to normal (he was tactful enough to omit ‘not with you, Gerhard’, at least in public). As a first step in that direction Schroeder promised to consider an expansion of the German peacekeeping-force in Kabul, but since the German military is already over-stretched by commitments in Afghanistan and elsewhere this will be difficult to do.

The most interesting aspect of the whole affair is that Bush seems to personalize politics and international relations, not just by taking slights personally, but also by directly approaching individuals he sees as worthwhile partners. This goes beyond playing “divide and rule” (although it’s part of it), he is cutting out both foreign governments and the American foreign policy apparatus for some pretty effective networking. He doesn’t have to do much more than meet people; just being seen talking to him raises their status, as it just did for Roland Koch, so they’ll be eager to stay on his good side. Conversely, those who don’t get on very well with him either manage to make up or find themselves becoming increasingly lonely (there is a reason why Schroeder is concentrating on domestic problems all of a sudden). By now he manages to integrate the Machiavellian and the personal* very well so that he seems to be completely at ease with himself, after looking somewhat awkward at the start of his presidency.

*This might be the more important aspect for GWB; Machiavelli never mentioned nicknames in ‘Il Principe’; Pooty-Poot indeed.