Squabbling over Obama Berlin Split over How to Deal with New US Administration

US President Barack Obama is driving a wedge between the parties in Germany's grand coalition government. Angela Merkel is keeping her distance while Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier is making overtures to the new president -- and ruffling feathers in the process.

Barack Obama grew up knowing that there were two Germanys. Then the Berlin Wall fell, and he became accustomed to the idea that there was only one Germany. Now that he is president  he has discovered, during his first few days in office, that Germany is divided once again.

But this time the country is not divided into East and West Germany, but between Merkel's Germany and Steinmeier's Germany. And when it comes to their relationship with the new America, these two Germanys could not be more different.

Chancellor Angela Merkel takes a reserved view of Obama, waiting to see what his administration's policies will look like. There is not even a trace of enthusiasm for the man on whom the world's hopes are now pinned. Merkel is not prepared to quickly accommodate the Americans on the first concrete issue for trans-Atlantic relations, namely the acceptance of detainees from Guantanamo. 

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, on the other hand, is the president of Germany's Obama fan club. His enthusiasm knows no bounds. Steinmeier indicated right away that Germany would accept detainees from Guantanamo.

And so Obama has a problem: figuring out which Germany he will be dealing with.

The new chapter in German-American relations has gotten off to a bumpy start. Despite the friendly tone of trans-Atlantic telephone conversions in recent days -- Merkel with Obama and Steinmeier with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- Germany is still a puzzle for the new US administration. Which party in Germany's grand coalition government of Social Democrats (SPD) and Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) will call the shots in this election year, and what direction will they take?

This question will also be of interest to Vice President Joseph Biden when he arrives in Germany this week to attend the Munich security conference , which begins on Friday.

The curiosity is mutual. The Germans want to know what the United States intends to do in the world's crisis regions, such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq. They are also curious to see how America intends to combat the recession. There are growing fears that the country will isolate itself and protect its economy while discouraging imports. This would be a serious blow for Germany, the world's largest exporter.

For the time being, however, the new America has sounded gentle and thoughtful. Last Monday, when Obama spoke with Merkel, there were two new aspects to the conversation: Obama's tone, and the silences in between his sentences. The young president spoke and listened. "The White House of Barack Obama is a house with two buttons, not just a 'send' button," says Jackson Janes, an expert on Germany at Johns Hopkins University in Washington. America, he says, no longer wants to be "the skunk at the garden party."

Current Trouble Spots

Speaking in English, Merkel and Obama addressed the world's current trouble spots, Iran, Afghanistan and Wall Street, in quick succession. At every turn, Obama made it clear that his goal was to persuade and that he had no intention of inundating Merkel with demands. There was not a single demand in the 25-minute telephone conversation, Merkel later told members of her staff, not even for more German troops in Afghanistan.

In other words, the conversation wasn't nearly as painful as might have been expected. In the preceding week, Merkel had reacted testily when asked about Obama. The German chancellor suspects that the enthusiasm of many Germans for Obama is really an overly-hasty expression of admiration for the new president, who -- so people believe -- has got to be better than his predecessor. Obama, in her view, ought to produce some results first.

It has long irked her that all the euphoria over Obama goes hand-in-hand with criticism of Germany's supposedly dull and small-minded politicians, criticism which is aimed mainly at her, which is of course terrible in her eyes, and at Steinmeier, which is not half as bad.

The truth is that Merkel is a confirmed proponent of the trans-Atlantic alliance. She must be careful, however, not to allow her mistrust of political luster to diminish her standing in a new global era. And now Merkel is eyeing Steinmeier suspiciously as he cozies up to Obama. The foreign minister is fascinated by Obama's ability to get ordinary people enthused about politics. A relatively staid man, Steinmeier has little use for the pomp and circumstance of an American inauguration, and he knows that he will never be a German Obama. Nevertheless, he believes that the German political establishment should take a page from the charismatic American's book if it hopes to instill enthusiasm for politics in frustrated voters once again.

After Steinmeier's occasionally testy relationship with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the tone of his first conversation with his new counterpart was decidedly more positive. On her first day in her new job, Hillary Clinton discussed the Middle East, disarmament and Russia with the German foreign minister. "We have to be tough, Frank," Rice would have said in similar situations. For Steinmeier, the fact that Clinton managed to do without such calls for a display of toughness was a sign that the relationship is on the mend.

Perhaps he hopes that it will help his chances of being elected chancellor if he can portray himself as the new US president's best friend, especially now that he can include Obama, a Democrat, in a global social democratic movement, whereas Merkel's CDU feels traditionally aligned with the Republicans, now contaminated by the Bush era.

The Big Question

But those would be the considerations of people running for office, and they would seem petty compared with the real issues of the day. In her conversation with Obama, Merkel was relieved to hear him speak out in favor of free trade. And his commitment to fair competition seemed believable. But can Obama translate this stance into policy? This is the big question, from the German standpoint.

A bipartisan coalition of politicians is taking shape in the US Congress that seeks to include a "buy American" clause in the government's economic stimulus program, to encourage the purchase of American products.

This would affect all funds within the program that are not earmarked for food stamps, health insurance policies and tax cuts. At issue is a sum of about $300 billion (€230 billion) that would be invested, in the coming years, in such projects as additional sewage treatment plants, new railroads and bridges, upgrading the US electrical grid, wind farms and solar panels.

A growing number of members of Congress want to impose a restriction on these investments that would require builders and developers to buy almost all materials in the United States, benefiting American businesses like steel mills and gravel pits. Senators on the both sides of the aisle, like North Dakota Democrat Byron Dorgan, are at the forefront of the initiative. They argue that the plan is not protectionism but self-defense. "It's pretty hard for anyone to look at our trade situation and suggest that we are being unfair," says Dorgan.

Executives with major exporting companies, on the other hand, are struggling against the growing grassroots movement for more protectionism. This plan would be immensely dangerous for world trade and is incompatible with the statutes of the World Trade Organization (WTO), say officials at General Electric and in the aerospace industry.

It would be especially painful for Germany, the world's largest exporter. In 2008, German companies supplied goods worth about €70 billion ($91 billion) to the United States. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last Friday, Merkel showed that she plans to take the new president at his word. "We need an open world economy," she told the group, adding that she now views Washington's moves to subsidize its ailing auto industry with some suspicion. "Such phases cannot be allowed to last very long," Merkel warned.

Things Are not Easy with this New President

The tone is different in Steinmeier's Germany. The foreign minister is inundating the Americans with offers of cooperation. For instance, he plans to work together with the United States on such important issues as expanding the G-8 group of industrialized nations, creating a nuclear-free world, slowing down climate change and reforming NATO. And just in case Obama comes up with the idea of tackling all of these things without Steinmeier, the German foreign minister set out his positions in an open letter to the president  published in SPIEGEL.

A letter from a cabinet minister to a designated head of state is considered presumptuous from the perspective of protocol alone. Merkel's foreign policy advisor, Christoph Heusgen, pointedly inquired in Steinmeier's office as to what letterhead was used for the trans-Atlantic missive.

None of this matters to Steinmeier. He will fly to Iraq this month with a delegation of economic and cultural officials. In Baghdad, Steinmeier will offer the Iraqis reconstruction aid, while at the same time supporting major German companies' efforts to acquire lucrative infrastructure contracts.

The diplomatic activity in Iraq is perhaps the most spectacular signal of rapprochement. In taking these steps, Steinmeier -- the political heir to former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who famously opposed the Iraq war -- intends to bring about the "end of Germany's quarantine" against Washington's Iraq policy, say officials at the German Foreign Ministry.

When it comes to Iran, Steinmeier wants to show that he is willing to invest in the German-American relationship. Since September, his ministry has been developing an extensive package of new sanctions against Tehran. It calls for excluding additional banks, insurance companies and transportation businesses from trade with the rest of the world -- by United Nations resolution, if possible. The package will not be implemented right away, but instead will provide Obama with a means of applying pressure on Tehran.

Scheduling Conflicts

But Steinmeier's initiative is currently being held up within his own government. The deputy ministers in the Economics and Finance Ministries cancelled a meeting with the Foreign Ministry and the Chancellery two weeks ago, citing scheduling conflicts.

Steinmeier may understand that the ministries are putting on the brakes out of concern for the economy. But the Foreign Ministry is incensed over the Chancellery's efforts to hold up the sanctions initiative. "The Chancellery is keeping its head down," says one diplomat, adding that valuable time in the bid to secure a say for Germany in the US's policy on Iran is being lost as a result.

The new orientation in the war against terrorism is also important to Steinmeier. The German foreign minister plans to take the earliest opportunity to propose to his US counterpart Hillary Clinton that the US and Europe begin a dialogue on questions of international law relating to the war on terror. Such discussions were pointless with the Bush administration.

Such questions also include the controversial issue of accepting detainees from Guantanamo. Steinmeier wants Europe to help the Americans close the notorious prison on Cuba, but his stance has been met with outrage among Christian Democrats.

This explains why there was so much anticipation over what Obama would say to the chancellor about Guantanamo in their telephone conversation. He confirmed that he plans to close the detention camp, but he did not request action from the German side -- nor did he have to.

Even Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, up until now the most vocal opponent of helping Washington by taking Guantanamo inmates, now assumes that there will be a European solution in which several countries accept a few detainees each.

But officials at Germany's Interior Ministry and intelligence agencies shudder at the possible consequences of such a political gesture to Obama. There is now a list of 57 names of Guantanamo prisoners that the Americans have scheduled for release and who are not considered high-ranking terrorists. It is a list of 57 problems.

Is Germany the Best Destination?

It includes such illustrious cases as that of Tunisian national Abdul Bin Mohammed Ourgy, who the Americans say is a member of al-Qaida and fought against Afghanistan's Northern Alliance in Tora Bora in late 2001. Another man on the list is Rafiq Bin Bashir al-Hami, a fellow Tunisian who already knows Germany. In the summer of 1996, al-Hami entered Germany under a false name and applied for asylum. The courts rejected his application because it was clearly unfounded. Their decision became legally binding in 1999.

He disappeared in November 1998. He is believed to have subsequently attended a terrorist training camp near Kandahar in Afghanistan. US troops arrested him in January 2002. Someone like al-Hami would be a candidate for a German solution. The Americans cannot deport him to Tunisia, where he would face torture and death. But is Germany the best destination for him?

Two Uzbeks, who are believed to be members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and were captured during fighting in Afghanistan in late 2001, are also on the US list. In a video released at the beginning of this year, the IMU threatened Germany and sought to recruit volunteers for jihad. Under these circumstances, bringing two of the group's members to Germany for humanitarian reasons would be difficult to justify from the standpoint of security policy.

On the other hand, the 17 Uyghurs on the list, members of a Muslim minority in China, are considered relatively harmless, and yet their case promises to have diplomatic implications. Chinese delegations have appeared at the Chancellery several times to complain about how dangerous the renegade exiles supposedly are. This raises the question of what is more important to the German government: showing consideration for Beijing's wishes or making a gesture of goodwill to the Americans?

Things are not easy with this new president. Because he is so persuasive, it is difficult to express German interests that contradict his policies. But these interests are certainly bound to fail if they are conceived and expressed by two Germanys. It would be fatal for Merkel and Steinmeier to be squabbling over Obama while the rest of the world develops a new order.

The US president plans to make a trip to Germany soon, but not to Berlin. In early April, Obama will attend a summit meeting to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the founding of NATO. The cities he will experience on that occasion are relatively low-profile places, both in southwestern Germany: Kehl and Baden-Baden.


Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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