Merkel in Washington First Bash, then Butter Up

German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Thursday sets off for her first official visit to Washington. Before leaving Berlin she heavily criticized the United States for the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, but she also appears ready to promise more help in Iraq. What seems contradictory could simply be cunning strategy.

German diplomats and protocol officials are always a bit jumpy when a German chancellor visits the United States or an American president comes to Germany. But it's not just uncertainty about what new security measures the Americans will dream up that are cause for nervousness. Such trips, of course, always provide countless opportunities for slipups. And although both governments like to portray the German-American friendship as steadfast and rock solid, it sure seems to be extremely susceptible to hiccups.

Merkel's team could then perhaps be forgiven for having a touch of stage fright, as she sets off for her first official visit to Washingon as chancellor. However, she has telegraphed her most important signals about what can be expected from the trip far in advance. In a SPIEGEL interview  this week, Merkel said that an institution like the US prison camp for terror suspects at Guantanamo should "not continue to exist long-term." And on Wednesday, reports in Berlin circulated that Germany was prepared to increase its involvement in the reconstruction of Iraq.

When you put both together you get a clear view of Merkel's mission. She appears to be attempting the ambitious feat of trying to score points both in Washington and Berlin in the same week. With her clear criticism of American policies in Guantanamo, she is sending a message to the German people. When many think of Merkel in Washington, they still see her unfortunate six-day trip taken just before the Iraq war, when the conservative leader of Christian Democrats wanted to offer her support to the United States. While former chancellor Gerhard Schröder staked out a clear anti-war stance back home, Merkel -- then leader of the opposition -- spent her time exchanging pleasantries with Bush administration heavyweights Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice.

Washington unfazed

With her calculated criticism of the controversial prison at Guantanamo, Merkel is cannily defusing the criticism -- in German eyes -- that she is too close to Bush. The indirect call for the camp to be closed appears courageous and is something even Schröder would have thought twice about -- at least just before an official state visit. An enthusiastic response in Germany was guaranteed.

What was surprising, however, was the apparent unfazed reaction  on the other side of the Atlantic. As far as Guantanamo-bashing goes, the Bush administration appears to have developed a thick skin. Indignation over Merkel's remarks was limited. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack merely confirmed that there were no plans to close the camp, which holds terror suspects indefinitely in legal limbo. "If these people were released, they would be right back in the fight," he said. The explanation from German government officials about the blasé response from Washington? The US administration wasn't surprised since it was used to being criticized by Europe on the topic.

The word in Berlin on the eve of her trip was that Guantanamo could be mentioned as an "example" during the visit, in order to discuss the differences between Europe and America in the fight against terror. There would not be an attempt to place undue focus on the touchy subject, but efforts would be made to have an "open exchange of ideas" about fundamental questions. Merkel will not bring up criticism concerning the treatment of the German citizen Khaled al-Masri, who was wrongly abducted by the CIA  and held for many months in a secret prison for terrorists. Nor will mention be made of the case of the Turkish citizen raised in Germany , Murat Kurnaz, who is still being held in Guantanamo. Government sources say that individual cases will probably not be discussed. Instead the questions concerning Israel and Iran will be at the top of the agenda. On Thursday, Germany, France and Britain recommended that the International Atomic Energy Agency refer Iran to the United Nations Security Council following Tehran's resumption of its controversial nuclear program.

More Help in Iraq

But to ensure the press conference after the one-on-one meeting with Bush doesn't end up turning sour, it seems that Merkel has packed a few sweeteners in her suitcase -- as a way of making amends for her Guantanamo criticism. Judging from reports circulating in the German press, she will announce Berlin's intention to expand the German commitment in Iraq. Bush, whose domestic support has been severely battered, will probably be grateful for the public show of support.

On Wednesday, Germany's minister for economic cooperation and development, Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, pledged $10 million to the Iraq Reconstruction Fund. And according to the German newspaper Die Welt, Merkel also wants to offer more training for Iraqi police officers. Although government spokesmen didn't want to confirm this, they did say that in principle Germany is prepared to "extend specific areas" of support. This leads one to assume that Merkel will come up with something while in Washington that will produce positive headlines in the United States as well.

At the moment, there is a fair chance that Merkel's plan will bear fruit. This would mean that after helping broker a deal on the EU budget in December, she will have passed her second major foreign-policy test with flying colors. Her advisers are, of course, optimistic that all will go well in Washington. They say there is "a lot of curiosity" about the new chancellor in the United States. Nearly 200 leading politicians and foreign policy experts, including the former secretaries of state Colin Powell, Madeleine Albright and Henry Kissinger, have accepted an invitation to join Merkel at a dinner hosted by the German ambassador to Washington on Thursday evening.

Merkel has met Bush personally only once before. Last February, when the president came to the German town of Mainz for a post-Iraq conciliatory meeting with Schröder, he requested a meeting with Merkel. They spent a quarter of an hour together. This time around, according to government sources, Bush has set aside three hours for Merkel. This, they say, is "unusually long" even for a German leader.

Merkel's team, however, can only really breathe easily once back on the plane. No matter how slick the preparations are, there are still a few things that can go wrong in Washington -- as was the case during the recent visit of Secretary Rice to Berlin. During a joint press conference Merkel said that the US government had admitted to making a "mistake" by abducting the German citizen al-Masri. This was later strenuously denied by the Americans who said they had no idea what was going through Merkel's head, when she made the comment.

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