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Germany has played its hand on Iraq with nowhere to go

BERLIN—At first glance, Germany looks like a big-power player, at least on the issue of Iraq. It stalled NATO plans to help defend Turkey, signed a declaration with France and Russia backing more weapons inspections and, as chair of the U.N. Security Council, said it had enough votes to block endorsement of U.S.-led military action.

But despite the bold moves, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's hand looks increasingly weak, because ultimately he can't stop the American war effort.

Schroeder has alienated his country's major ally, the United States, with the strident and sometimes personal tone of his early and unequivocal opposition to war. His stubborn position backed Germany into a diplomatic corner, in contrast to France, whose true intentions remain anyone's guess.

"I would love to tell you there is a new maneuverability, but I don't see it," said Friedbert Pflueger, foreign policy spokesman in parliament for the opposition Christian Democratic party, which supports the American position. Christian Democrat leaders have called for the government to step down, charging that Schroeder has weakened NATO and the European Union, which Pflueger calls "the two pillars of German postwar security."

The Franco-German alliance against the war has offended many European countries, 18 of which have pledged solidarity with the U.S. position.

A few years ago, Europe's largest economy was rolling, and words spoken in its chancellery and foreign office resonated in Washington and Brussels, Belgium, NATO's headquarters. Former Chancellor Helmut Kohl led a movement for a strong, unified Europe, anchored by a productive, persuasive Germany.

Now Germany's identity crisis runs so deep that earlier this month, in a speech to diplomats in Berlin, the former German ambassador to the United States, Jurgen Chrobog, began with three words that once didn't need saying: "Germany does matter."

"The irony is that Germany, which still envisions itself as the motor of Europe, is the sick man of Europe," said Gary Smith, the director of the American Academy in Berlin, a cultural exchange program between the two countries. "It has neither the power nor influence. Germany has marginalized itself, both economically and politically. To those who have dedicated their lives to transatlantic relations, this is a moment you can't believe."

Schroeder's strategy made sense domestically. With opinion polls showing that up to 80 percent of the German people oppose military action, that single, emotional issue won him re-election last September and distracted voters from a host of economic failures, including unemployment and a budget deficit exceeding EU limits.

But Schroeder was left with little room to move internationally. With everyone knowing Germany's position, where is its ability to negotiate in the Security Council?,asks Thomas Risse, a professor of international relations at Berlin's Free University. "Germany lost all of its influence before the game started."

Jeffrey Gedmin, the director of the Aspen Institute in Berlin, a transatlantic research center, suspects that France and Russia have left themselves room to support military action, leaving Germany standing on principle, but standing alone.

"This big game of chicken will be a big blow to NATO and the relevancy of the Security Council," Gedmin said. "Let's be charitable and say this country is growing and maturing, and that this moment is one of amateurish adolescence."

Germany's problem has been one of style as well as substance, said Christian Hacke, a professor of transatlantic relations at the University of Bonn who noted that Schroeder sent his spokesman to speak out against war a few hours before Secretary of State Colin Powell began to make his case at the Security Council that Iraq wasn't cooperating with U.N. resolutions.

Most Germans, however, support Schroeder's core views, said Katinka Barysch, the German-born chief economist for the Centre for European Reform, a London-based research center. "You can only exploit that sort of opinion if it is there to start with. He very cunningly tapped into a large, pacifist movement."

German opposition to war, she said, is deep and earnest and singular, "because of the history of the Germans assuming the responsibility and guilt for causing the Second World War. As a result of that, they want to live in a peaceful world."

The world-weary German view is expressed by Margarete Rumsfeld, 84, whose late husband, Diedrich, shared a great-great-grandfather with the U.S. defense secretary.

"We went through two wars in the last century. We don't need to be involved in another one."

"If I met Donald Rumsfeld now—and we were very proud of him so far—I would tell him to find a compromise. For God's sake, he shouldn't start a war and risk people's lives."


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.