German Politics, Iraq, US Politics

William Safire. Again.

William Safire does have a problem. He is seemingly fascinated with a country he does not have a real clue about – Germany. However, as opposed to his recent rantings about Franco-German attempts to dominate the world, in today’s NYTimes column he does make two real points.

Firstly, he is talking about last week’s PR campaign by 8-10 European leaders and the problem of “representing Europe”, secondly, he thinks about the necessity of basing US troops in Germany following teh end of the Cold War and a thought-experiment by a US general.

First things first. Mr Safire writes –

“Leaders of eight European nations – not just Britain, but Italy, Spain, Portugal, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Denmark – had signed an op-ed statement supporting the U.S. stand on Saddam and in effect asserting that Germany and France did not speak for Europe. Schröder was flabbergasted; he had no idea that this rejection of his anti-U.S. crusade was in the works. Think about that: a Wall Street Journal request started the round-robin letter; eight nations weighed in on its drafting and redrafting for days; but Germany’s chancellor, with his vast intelligence system and diplomatic corps, was totally in the dark.”

There’s a lot in this paragraph: Firstly, Schroeder in all likelihood knew about the letter, as Welt am Sonntag reported yesterday. However, that does not make much of a difference in any political sense – he did not sign the letter, which, by the way, does not even really differ from the German position. Did you read it? It is a call for peaceful disarmement and expression of gratitude for US involvement in Europe since WW2.

Schroeder could have signed it without factually compromising his position on Iraq. But, obviously, the world’s (and worse, the German) media would have framed it differently. So he did not do i – days before important by-elections which his party seemed bound to lose (and lose it did, big time). On the other hand, the fact that Schroeder could have signed indicates that the letter’s content is not too controversial in Europe.

Secondly, there’s the question of “speaking for Europe”. However much I am personally disappointed by the way Schroeder is doing everything he can to make things worse – don’t get me started on last weekend’s “proposal” -, he would never claim to speak for Europe. I believe that it was the US media which created a rift between “Europe” and the “US” which then led to a perception in which “the Weasels” represent “Europe”. Donny complicated things with his “age”-qualifiers. However, the opinion of European peoples is in all likelihood a lot closer to the rethoric of Chirac and Schroeder than it is to the one of the likes of Richard Perle. Even though no British person would ever admit it, according to most polls I see, even British opinion (including that of Blair’s backbenchers) is better represented by Schroeder or Chirac than by their own Prime Minister. Also, thinking about representation, here’s a nice extract written by Charles Utwater II in a comment to a post in Brad DeLong’s blog. I could not have stated it better myself..

While the Wall Street Journal, with the connivance of Tony Blair and the Prime Minister of Spain managed to get the signatures of eight European leaders, those signatures do not represent the will of the people of those countries. Indeed, Vaclav Havel resigned the day after signing, and the Czech government repudiated his signature. The Spanish Prime Minister was taken to task by the president. Silvio Berlusconi of Italy is under threat of indictment as a mafioso and is not a particularly popular figure at the moment. Italy has had some of the largest anti-war demonstrations in Europe. And so on down the list. About 70% of Europeans oppose war in Iraq under current conditions, and even if the UN produces a resolution, about 40-50% oppose.

I think that says it all. Surely, the will of the people is not as important in a democracy as the will of their leaders if it comes to deploying troops. But it still is of minor importance every now and then in elections. Ask W., he should know about the intricacies of electoral systems.

The point being? Even though Schroeder is handling the current situation as badly as Richard Perle must have hoped for, he is not totally out of tune with the European public.

Then, Mr Safire goes on to tell us straight to the face how little he knows about Germany –

“Germany’s new opposition leader, the Thatcheresque Angela Merkel, joined the defining issue as her conservative party’s past candidate had failed to do. She said of the anti-Saddam op-ed: “if we had been in government, Germany would have signed that letter.”

Thatcherite (isn’t it?) Angela Merkel. I am in stitches. She will love it, too. I bet she has alreay printed a copy of the column and hung next to the Helmut Kohl portrait in her office. I’m kidding. But let’s remember – Margaret Thatcher was a tough British Prime Minister. Angela Merkel is a rather weak German opposition leader. She’s not even uncontested in her own party. And she’s the leader of an opposition that is continuously embarrassing itself by not being able and/or willing to take any real stance in the Iraq issue. Let’s face it – Angela Merkel is as thatcherite as W is a Democrat. She does not have a firm (published) opinion on Iraq and neither has her party. She probably would not have signed the letter as party-leader as it was published before the by-elections in Hessen and Lower-Saxony. And I bet she would not have signed the letter as a chancellor. But as opposition leader without a firm opinion, after the by-elections, and without having been asked to sign in first place, she can now say whatever she wants without the fear of having to act on it later on.

The point being? Mr. Safire entirely misrepresents the mood and the leadership of the CDU/CSU conservative opposition (which is now, after the by elections, via the upper chamber, the Bundesrat, effectively a part of the federal government for all important legislative initiatives).

The last part of the article is concerned with the “European free riding” argument I made several times before. Even though Mr. Safire admits that proposed plans for deployment reductions in Germany are not some sort of punishment for the German chancellor, I suppose it’s not entirely coincidental that the US are starting to think about their continental European bases right now – this is what he refers to.

“a briefing in Brussels Friday of a U.S. Congressional delegation led by McCain and Lieberman by the new NATO supreme commander, U.S. Marine Gen. James Jones,
revealed a developing U.S. strategy. It holds that the 70,000 U.S. troops garrisoned in Germany, accompanied by their 70,000 dependents, make up too many forces with too outdated a mission stationed too far from potential trouble at too high a cost.”

Concerning this potentially crucial development, there are two main political issues which will have to be decided rather quickly following the Iraq war – will the imperialists remain the dominating force of the Republican party or can the libertarians regain some ground, especially in foreign policy? The former faction will not be too interested in closing bases. The latter likely will. Secondly, realizing this, what will Germany’s and Europe’s reaction be? Backing down for free security? Not an unlikely possibility given the budgetary situation of many European countries, especially Germany. Or will Europe begin to invest more into its own security? The last alternative will likely mean more distributive battles and less political stability in the medium run, with an uncertain long run.

Difficult alternatives. But no one said being Chancellor would be easy.