It could have been a beautiful scene. A mild early summer evening in the first-class garden restaurant La Verniaz, perched high above Lake Geneva. Waitresses serve champagne and red wine, the flames of candles and torches flicker in a gentle breeze, and the blue light of a swimming pool in the background glows in the dark.
But the appearance of the leading character on this last evening of the G8 summit in the French town of Evian doesn't quite match the script prepared by the directors from the German Federal Press Agency. Although they have artistically placed Gerhard Schröder on a white garden chair beneath a Linden tree, the chancellor's mood belies official efforts to stage an effective drama.
His relationship with George W. Bush? "Stop reporting on who looks at whom, and for how long," he barked at the assembled journalists, "the President and I are grown men who are fully aware that our countries depend on one another."
The alleged Iraqi weapons of mass destruction? "Who was right and who was wrong was not a topic of discussion at the summit," says Schröder moodily, adding: "It was obvious to everyone that this is not a time to dwell on contemporary history." End of story.
But what appears to be of so little interest to the Chancellor has been a topic of discussion in the global community for the past few days. US Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz was the first influential member of the US administration to admit that Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction were used as a pretext for going to war, and that this was done "for bureaucratic reasons."
Although the Pentagon quickly attempted to downplay the admissions of this troublemaker ("taken out of context"), what war opponents all over the world had always believed was suddenly confirmed: The supposed threat by Iraqi nuclear, biological and chemical weapons was inflated by the administrations in Washington and London.
The Americans and the British have spent months deceiving the world, especially their own allies, in an unprecedented manner. The material that US Secretary of State Colin Powell presented in February during his dramatic appearance before the UN Security Council was - as how now become clear - so weak that Powell himself was outraged over some of the material what he was to present on behalf of his administration. The weapons inspectors then deployed in Iraq were also under the impression that "a major bluff" was being staged.
"Lies, lies, lies," read the headline in the London "Daily Mirror," summarizing public sentiment, at least outside America, on the Anglo-Saxon propaganda debacle. The British public in particular is so outraged that British Prime Minister Tony Blair now finds himself taking a defensive posture. Although the British House of Commons decidedly rejected having exaggerated the threat posed by the Saddam regime, a fact-finding committee is now investigating whether Parliament was deceived. And in Washington, congressmen and senators are also demanding an explanation. The US news magazine "Newsweek" recently ran a sensational cover story on the administration's deceptive maneuvers.
And the former opponents of war in Paris and Berlin? They appease, conciliate, or are simply silent. The men whose opposition to the war in Iraq almost succeeded in fracturing relations with the Americans just a few weeks ago have suddenly become touchingly understanding.
Even French President Jacques Chirac, during a discussion with Bush in Evian that barely lasted thirty minutes, dared not address the "greatest official lie of the past few years" (to quote a French diplomat). It was more important to Chirac to present the entire world with the illusion of his reconciliation with his counterpart from Washington. The US president patronizingly declared: "We can disagree, but we don't have to be nasty to each other."
Even Schröder, who had accused the Americans of adventurism during the [German] elections, refuses to allow anything to stand in the way of his efforts to achieve rapprochement with Washington. In spite of all the rhetoric of reconciliation, the relationship with the Americans is difficult enough.
It had been noted with concern in Berlin that the Bush administration, operating on the principle of "divide and conquer," is openly attempting to drive a wedge between Europeans. As one aide to the Chancellor complains, the United States' erstwhile foreign policy doctrine of promoting European unity has become virtually nonexistent.
According to the same aide, the quick victory over Iraq has strengthened the hawks within the US administration, who do not view the use of military force as a last resort, but instead as a preferred tool of American global policy.
To avoid straining relations even further, the issue of weapons of mass destruction is to be kept as much in the background as possible. As a precautionary measure, the [German] Chancellor instructed his ministers, during last Wednesday's cabinet meeting, to exercise restraint vis-à-vis the public: "We do not wish to see any backward-directed discussion at this point."
The justification for war, from a US perspective Wolfowitz' admission was received with outrage in the SPD. The German minister in charge of third-world development, Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, angrily declared that the United States had "deceived the world" with the war in Iraq: "The issue was oil, not weapons of mass destruction." Gernot Erler, the vice-chairman of the SPD in charge of foreign and security policy, viewed the situation as "a credibility gap, which can be dangerous for US policy. It would a serious matter indeed if such developments were successful."
Schröder's party friends have reacted coldly to their chairman's newly cautious stance. Their anger with the Chancellor is only mitigated by their gloating over the CDU and CSU parties, as CDU chairwoman Angela Merkel had quickly taken ownership of the US' propaganda.
Last Tuesday, Friedbert Pflüger, a member of the German parliament closely aligned with Merkel in matters of foreign policy, complained to his party colleagues about "the international press' criticism" of Wolfowitz, and demanded that the CDU and CSU stand behind Washington's hard-liners. However, his demands produced little more than ridicule.
However, no one within the CDU and CSU is willing to go on record as being a critic of the Americans. In this respect, both the administration and the opposition party are - for once and without prior consultation - of one mind.
The Chancellery's current position can be summed up by the statement: "What can be gained by playing up this issue again?" After all, says the administration, the unwanted war has produced the satisfying outcome that one of the world's most notorious dictators has been removed, and Iraq now has an opportunity to start over again. Why open old wounds?
This is especially true as experts within the German administration were not particularly surprised by the revelations from Washington and London. After all, the staff at the Chancellery and the Foreign Office looked on, with growing astonishment, as the British and Americans padded, augmented and deliberately overinterpreted generally available intelligence information. In the assessment of one security expert in Berlin, "the level of manipulation that took place in this case is unprecedented."
Until the political dispute erupted, the CIA, Britain's MI6 intelligence service, and the German Federal Intelligence Service had cooperated rather closely in matters relating to Iraq. For this reason, a simple review of the records was sufficient to determine just how unscrupulous the proponents of war were in their efforts to "substantiate" the claim that Saddam had no intention of abandoning his plans to build weapons of mass destruction.
A large number of tapped telephone conversations and information provided by defectors reinforced the presumption that the Iraqi dictator was still purchasing the relevant materials. However, no one was able to provide clear evidence that he was in fact rebuilding his lethal arsenal.
Meanwhile, Bush is attempting to counter rising criticism with information on two mobile laboratories that could have been used to produce toxic substances. And additional finds will certainly follow.
It was Schröder's friend Blair who distributed a dossier last September that certainly deserves its own chapter in a future opus on the sloppy work and mistakes of intelligence services. Against the advice of Blair's own experts, the paper saw in every repair made to a former poison laboratory an indication of the infamous resumption of operations. At the time, the dirty phrase "political rape" of intelligence information began making the rounds at government headquarters in Berlin.
However, no member of the German government is willing to accuse the Americans and British of having deliberately tinkered with evidence. It seems that the hard-liners in the US administration are obsessed with the joy of the hunt, says one Berlin security expert, citing their lack of scruples in inflating indications to manufacture solid evidence.
Because this was even too much for US Secretary of State Powell, he purged the most glaring inconsistencies from his manuscript prior to appearing before the UN Security Council on February 5. But the claims of ghostwriters at the White House and the Pentagon that Saddam was still pursuing a nuclear weapons programs remained in his speech. He should have known better.
In early September, the "New York Times" reported that the United States had intercepted a shipload of specially manufactured aluminum tubes bound for Iraq. According to the CIA, this material was intended for use in the production of enriched uranium. Other intelligence services, including the "Bureau of Intelligence and Research" (INR) at the State Department, disagreed. Two weeks later, however, it was reported that Iraq had tried to buy 500 tons of uranium oxide in the West African country of Niger. This is theoretically enough material to build dozens of nuclear bombs.
Once again, Powell's internal experts at the INR felt that the report lacked credibility and raised red flags. Experts at the International Atomic Energy Agency later exposed the written correspondence between the governments of Niger and Iraq as an amateurish forgery. One of the letters was dated October 10, 2000, and bore the signature of a former minister, Allele Habibou, who had been out of office for years.
The quotient of two negative numbers is a positive number. Both reports, in spite of the fact that they were verifiably incorrect, were sufficient to suffocate growing criticism of Bush' war policies in the US Congress.
The President had no qualms in presenting "this ridiculous piece of dirt" (INR employee Greg Thielmann's assessment of the Niger file) as evidence of Saddam's nuclear treachery and using it to win popular support for the coming war. And the fabrications continued: In a speech in Cincinnati in October, Bush claimed that Saddam had produced 30,000 liters of highly toxic anthrax and other biological weapons that could be used to kill millions of people.
Bush did quote correctly from a statement made by Iraqi general Hussein Kamil, who had defected to Jordan in 1995. What he neglected to mention, however, was that Kamil had also said that all biological and chemical weapons had been destroyed after the arrival of the UN inspectors in Iraq.
Whatever the intelligence services were unable to uncover was "improved upon" at the executive level, both in Washington and in London. Last week, a high-ranking intelligence official told the BBC that material his agency had compiled for the government had been enhanced at 10 Downing Street to make it more provocative ("sexed up").
In the introduction to his September dossier, Tony Blair claimed that the rogue nation in the Gulf could deploy some of its weapons of mass destruction against the West "within 45 minutes." Defense Minister Adam Ingram later conceded that the Prime Minister had based his claim on a single source.
This was supposedly the work of Alastair Campbell, Blair's right-hand man. Britain's supreme spin doctor already entered the public consciousness because of his role in the scandal surrounding a report on Iraq. In early February, the British government presented this report to the public, and sustained lasting humiliation as a result, since it later became apparent that the intelligence services had essentially copied the information from professional journals and a paper written by a political science student in California.
Even the US military knew just how shaky the evidence was. During the final stages of war preparations, the Central Command of the US armed forces (Centcom) asked the CIA, for target planning purposes, to provide it with a list of locations where hazardous weapons were being or were presumed to be stockpiled. The response was sobering. "It was all junk," says a Centcom planner. According to the planner, the images Centcom received from the CIA showed "nothing but old friends," ruins of buildings that had been destroyed during the 1991 Gulf war. "We asked them what was in those buildings, and they said they had no idea."
And what about Saddam's alleged "Red Line," the line that, once crossed, would trigger the use of poison gas? Well, says the CIA in an attempt to justify the claims it had made to the now incensed US military, the Iraqis were bragging about this in tapped telephone conversations.
The principal source of these crass miscalculations on the American side was a group of dedicated hawks: Vice-president Dick Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, his deputy Wolfowitz, and William Luti, Director of the Office of Special Plans. This agency was established by Rumsfeld to provide him with the intelligence information that the established services could not deliver. It was these in-house agents who enriched the round of lies with the fairy tale that Al Qaida terrorist Mohammed Atta had met with an Iraqi secret service agent in Prague shortly before his kamikaze attack on the World Trade Center. In response to this report, the FBI presented hotel bills and a rental car contract that proved that Atta must have been on the road in Florida and Virginia at the time in question. Of course, this did not prevent the US government from using the story of close cooperation between Saddam and Al Qaida for its own propaganda purposes.
Rumsfeld is considered the most consistent distorter of facts. According to insider information obtained by the US news magazine "Time", the Defense Secretary "distorted information in an almost pathological way."
The second-largest source of erroneous information was the group of exiled Iraqi politicians and defectors. Their stories about poison laboratories in bunkers and underground chemical weapons factories were probably all fabricated. In any event, the UN inspectors, who spent years combing Iraq for concealed weapons and secret production facilities, were unable to confirm any of these reports.
But now, in the wake of Paul Wolfowitz' revelations, the giant propaganda bubble seems to have burst. According to Democratic congresswoman Jane Harman, the incident is the "greatest intelligence service flop of all time."
The erstwhile opponents of the war, particularly the administrations in Paris and Berlin, are silently gloating over this debacle. Those at the Chancellery are already hoping that the affair will produce serious political consequences, especially in the United States. In their view, if the Bush administration comes under fire in its own country, even the agitators in the Rumsfeld camp will be more careful before producing a new threat with fabricated evidence.
Ultimately, Iran represents the next potential conflict zone. More so than in Iraq, the Germans, who have traditionally maintained close relations with the Persians, have solid political interests in Iran.
The German government also suspects Teheran of developing weapons of mass destruction and running an ambitious nuclear weapons program. However, Berlin is generally skeptical about Washington's increasingly vocal accusations that the mullah regime is in league with Al Qaida terrorists and harboring Bin Laden's associates.
The German government believes that those in Iran who sympathize with the terrorists and would offer them assistance tend to be isolated fanatics, and that this is certainly not an official policy. After all, claim the Germans, Iran has deported suspected terrorists on several occasions in recent months.
At the G8 summit in Evian, however, the Americans signaled to the other countries that their rhetoric on Iran, at least so far, should be viewed primarily as an intimidating tactic.
In Berlin, there is skepticism as to whether this strategy of the Americans will succeed. "I do not believe that threats work with the Iranians," says an advisor to the Chancellor. Nonetheless, he is optimistic that the United States will shy away from a military strike against Teheran, partly because of the enormous costs this would involve. And a second propaganda bubble based on the Iraq model is unlikely to develop: "In the future, the world will look at such 'evidence' with a much more critical eye."
KONSTANTIN VON HAMMERSTEIN, GEORG MASCOLO, ERICH WIEDEMANN
Translated by Chris Sultan