Visits by US presidents to Germany are usually surrounded by an air of history. But the program for George W. Bush's visit on Tuesday and Wednesday reads as if he's already left office. There won't be any grand speeches or symbolic gestures at historic sites.
Instead he's being put up in an official residence in Brandenburg, about 70 kilometers north of the German capital. It's a clear sign that Bush is the lame duck of US politics in the remaining months of his deeply controversial eight-year presidency.
By inviting Bush to Schloss Meseberg palace, the official guest house of the German government, Merkel is officially returning the US president's invitation to his ranch in Crawford, Texas last November. It's a friendly gesture, but not an especially personal one. "She succeeds in playing this game between closeness and distance," Alexander Skiba, expert for trans-Atlantic relations at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), told the news agency AFP.
But senior politicians from Merkel's ruling grand coalition as well as from opposition parties have done away with diplomatic niceties, seizing on Bush's farewell visit to express their aversion to the president who remains vilified in Germany for launching the Iraq war.
The regional newspaper Stuttgarter Nachrichten interviewed a number of politicians critical of Bush for its Monday edition. They included Karsten Voigt, the German government's coordinator for German-American relations, who accused Bush of launching the Iraq war "on the basis of dubious facts without the backing of the (United Nations) Security Council and despite the opposition of important allies."
Meanwhile Hans-Ulrich Klose, foreign policy expert for the center-left Social Democrats and deputy chairman of the German parliament's foreign affairs committee, said: "One really can't say George W. Bush made the world a better place. On the contrary: His actions played a big part in damaging America's image around the world."
A similar tone was taken by Eckart von Klaeden, foreign policy expert for Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats, who commented that Guantanamo and the scandal over prisoner abuse in Baghdad's Abu Ghraib jail had boosted support for Islamic extremists and shifted power in the region in Iran's favor.
Guido Westerwelle, the head of the business-friendly Free Democratic Party, said: "The Bush era was not a good one -- neither for America nor for those who see themselves as friends of America." After the September 11 attacks, Bush had focused unilaterally on military solutions and a reduction in civil liberties, said Westerwelle. The Iraq war weakened the UN, he said, adding that the Guantanamo Bay detention camp was a "disgrace to all the values that America, of all countries, stands for."
Jürgen Trittin, a senior member of the opposition Green Party, said Bush "definitely made the world worse." Faith in democracy around the world had fallen dramatically and global energy supplies had become less secure as a result of the Iraq war, he said.
Bush will begin his six-day tour with a visit to Slovenia on Monday where he will hold an annual US-Europe summit. He then flies to Germany late on Tuesday and will hold a joint news conference with Merkel on Wednesday.
He travels on to Rome, where he is scheduled to meet Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and Pope Benedict XVI before travelling on to Paris, London and Belfast.