Joschka Fischer's visit was originally intended to defuse political tensions. According to plans made by officials in charge of protocol issues at Germany's foreign office, Fischer was to spend an evening chatting with investment bankers from Goldman Sachs in New York, followed by a luncheon in Washington with colleague Colin Powell and conciliatory talks with Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice.
However, this week's attempt on the part of the German foreign minister, shortly before his vacation in Tuscany, to convey signals of normalization in strained German-American relations amounts to a virtually insurmountable task - a true "mission impossible." Suddenly the agenda has turned to old affronts and new demands, to high diplomacy and to the sensitivity both sides have lacked during the past few months.
Above all, the US expects one thing from Fischer, Schröder and Co. - restraint. Every word is pregnant with significance, and critical statements can quickly be interpreted as a renewed expression of antagonism.
President George W. Bush is coming under fire. The administration is faced with new allegations of official deception on an almost daily basis. Critics contend that Bush misled his own people, his allies and the global public with exaggerated propagandistic claims about Saddam Hussein's nuclear, chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction.
Because the war in Iraq is dragging on and the occupying forces have been unable to find its former dictator or his alleged arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, America the superpower has been forced onto the defensive, both morally and politically. America wanted war, even without legitimation under international law, and now some of its principal reasons for going to war are proving to be manipulated or even fabricated.
Last week, the White House admitted that Bush should have refrained from mentioning an alleged uranium deal between Iraq and Niger in his State of the Union address - the shady transaction was nothing but a crude fabrication. Democratic Senator John Kerry, a man likely to remain at the center of public opinion as a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president, has criticized the administration, saying that "Bush deceived all of us."
Washington is poised to impose new unreasonable demands on its guest from Berlin. Last week, the US Senate and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called on Germany and other NATO partners to deploy troops to Iraq as quickly as possible. "Our goal is to get a large number of international forces from a lot of countries, including France and Germany," Rumsfeld announced last Wednesday.
A post-war conflict has begun in Iraq, and the United States is calling for assistance. With growing consternation, Americans are seeing a few of their soldiers die at the hands of guerillas in Iraq every day. 148,000 American and 12,000 British troops are stationed along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, and most have already been there longer than their commanders had predicted. About 2,000 Poles and a sprinkling of units from such countries as Albania, Macedonia and Fiji are providing additional military support.
More than 200 US soldiers have already been killed, of which at least 70 lost their lives after the principal military conflict battle ended on May 1st. The administration has been forced to concede that it vastly underestimated the costs of deployment alone. The monthly cost to US taxpayers has increased from the original estimate of two billion to four billion dollars.
Now NATO allies are being asked to share the burden of the occupation, blood money included, preferably while withholding their criticism. Any involvement on the part of such opponents of the war as Germany and France in the embarrassing debate surrounding the justification for war is frowned upon.
This puts the German Vice Chancellor in an awkward situation. Of all people, Fischer, who, together with his boss, Gerhard Schröder ("But this country under my leadership is not available for adventure"), was a vocal opponent of the war during the German elections and for several months afterwards, is now being asked to hold his tongue.
"Our position is known," said the uncharacteristically taciturn Fischer, a member of Germany's Green party. Fischer has resolved to dispense with dogmatism and, in doing so, is acting on the instructions of the German chancellor. In the wake of the G8 summit of leading economic powers in Evian, France, where Schröder met with the displeased Bush in early June, Germany's head of state gave his cabinet the following explicit instructions: "No backward-directed discussions, please." Schröder conveyed a similar message to the US ambassador in Berlin: "Never look back."
Of course, not everyone in Berlin is prepared to exercise such restraint. Fischer's friends within his own party, and even some of his colleagues in the cabinet, are outraged over the US administration's lies surrounding the war.
"The Americans were not interested in weapons of mass destruction, but in oil," declared Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, Federal Minister for Economic Co-operation and Development, at a special convention of Germany's SPD party in early June. And Green party member Ludger Volmer, Fischer's previous Minister of State for foreign affairs, has reprimanded London and Washington for having "systematically deceived the global public."
Some are even demanding that the foreign minister take the offensive in criticizing Washington. "If it turns out that everything was fabricated," said Green party deputy Hans-Christian Ströbele, "Joschka should take the initiative in addressing the issue."
Fischer is unlikely to do so. He has no interest in creating new tensions, and prefers to inquire as to the US administration's future plans for some of the world's hot spots, such as Afghanistan, the Middle East, Iran and, most importantly, Iraq.
If the United States has its way, reconstruction in Iraq will be based on the Afghanistan model, i.e., it will become internationalized as quickly as possible. The world's largest military power would prefer to let others assume tomorrow's difficult tasks.
The European Union, NATO and even the vilified United Nations are once again being permitted to appear at court in Washington. This Monday, Bush is scheduled to receive UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.
There is an urgent desire to bring NATO to Baghdad. However, Europe's opponents of the war, led by Germany and France, have remained coy. "We could only discuss such an issue if a request were issued by the United Nations," said Chancellor Schröder Friday evening. "But this is purely theoretical. At present, our position of not becoming involved militarily in Iraq remains unchanged."
The upshot is that resistance to Bush continues, but that open confrontation is to be avoided. The German government would like to see Germany's interests represented in the halls of diplomacy and not in the marketplaces.
The German administration's demand, drafted jointly by the chancellor's office, the foreign ministry and the defense ministry prior to Fischer's departure, is that the occupying administration must first end and a "legitimate transitional government" must be established in Iraq. Only after this civil administration has asked the UN for assistance in securing law and order and the UN has subsequently issued a formal request for troops to NATO could Berlin "consider" the deployment of German troops.
Defense Minister and SPD party member Peter Struck has cautiously warned against excessively high expectations. About 8,500 German soldiers are already serving far away from home - from the Balkans to the Hindu Kush. "We cannot stretch our military too thinly," Struck declared.
In this climate, the US administration also wishes to avoid new disputes. The White House has expressed interest in the German chancellor returning to Washington. On Whit Saturday, President Bush ended a telephone conversation with Schröder with the cliched phrase, "we've got to keep on talking."
During his first visit to the United States following the Iraq war, Foreign Minister Fischer is enjoying an elevated level of protocol. He has maintained extensive contact with Colin Powell, the moderate voice in the administration, including a series of not necessarily urgent telephone calls on Sunday, conversations the US secretary of state is forced to tolerate. Fischer's 45-minute visit with Condoleeza Rice is also part of the Washington routine.
More important, however, is contact with Bush' highly influential vice president, Dick Cheney, who is known for his habitually low opinion of Europe. Could it be that the President is casting a blind eye on such communication? As perhaps was the case in May, when Cheney met with CDU party member and prime minister of Hesse Roland Koch?
The Chancellor, at any rate, perceived this is an insult. A member of Schröder's cabinet has even voiced, in all seriousness, the concern that the Bush administration "wants regime change in Berlin."
Conversely, the Germans would certainly welcome a "regime change" in Washington. Bush junior could go under in the turmoil generated by his Iraq policy, a policy that will cost the United States billions of dollars. Political leaders in Berlin like to remember that Bush senior only managed to remain in office for a single term, and that the prevailing issue at that time was the miserable state of the economy after the Gulf War, part I.
ROLAND NELLES, GERHARD SPÖRL
Translated by Christopher Sultan