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Column: Germany's declaration of independence

Not since Bill Clinton snubbed Newt Gingrich on Air Force One has a sitting U.S. president demonstrated the kind of petty vindictiveness that George W. Bush showed after the re-election of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in Germany.

Bush has acted much like a second-grader who got even following a fight with his erstwhile best friend by refusing to attend his birthday party. To our president, and to his aides who fumed over the "poisoned relationship" between the two nations, I can say only one thing: Get over it.

Whatever one may think of Schroeder , he has every right to run Germany's foreign policy without kowtowing to Washington, Brussels or any other powers that be. Over the last month, he exercised this right by firmly rejecting participation in the war on Iraq.

That the White House is upset about this is understandable, but to suggest that Schr��der 's actions have been dishonorable or improper verges on the absurd. A few questions may shed some light on the degree of this absurdity.

First, does Germany (or any other U.S. ally) possess an obligation--legal, political or moral--to support Washington's position in all circumstances? To put it less diplomatically, does the Bush administration actually believe that it should manage the foreign affairs of another sovereign state?

According to treaty, the only mandate Germany has is to defend its allies against foreign aggression. This it has done over the last year, perhaps less conscientiously than it could have, but certainly no worse than any other NATO member. Twelve German ships and hundreds of troops have been supporting U.S. operations in Afghanistan--the first time in the postwar era that its forces have seen combat outside Europe. On the other hand, war with Iraq clearly does not fall under the NATO charter, and even if the U.N. decided to authorize the use of force, Germany would have the right to opt out.

A moral argument has also been advanced that makes Germany's compliance with whatever Washington says a kind of grateful payback for the Marshall Plan and defense during the Cold War. Certainly, Germany owes a large debt of gratitude to the United States, but there are limits to how far loyalty must go. Tens of thousands of United States troops already use Germany as their base, and the German government backs America on the vast majority of U.N. votes. Let us not forget that it was Schroeder who pledged "unlimited solidarity" after Sept. 11. It is unreasonable to expect him to do even more.

Second, has the United States supported its allies when they pursued a foreign policy objective opposed by the White House? The United States did not back up Spain when it nearly went to war over an island the size of a soccer field. Neither did it applaud when Britain and France came close to starting World War III over the Suez Canal. In these cases, and in many others, the United States either quietly stood aside or criticized its allies.

In fact, the United States would occasionally withhold support from its friends even when their cause was just. In 1982, when the Falkland Islands were invaded by Argentina, it took Ronald Reagan's administration a full month before it backed Britain. Initially, it had even declined to impose sanctions! And figuring out who was the victim wasn't exactly difficult. In this case sovereign British territory was attacked without provocation by a foreign power. Still, the United States sought to craft a diplomatic solution before the Royal Navy dealt with the matter on its own terms. Even after Reagan sided with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, not a single American soldier took part in the war to help our nation's closest ally.

Finally, is Germany all that exceptional when it comes to challenging the U.S. on a major policy issue? The last time I checked, only Britain and Israel were in favor of a war with Iraq. (Oh yes, and also the Federated States of Micronesia.) This means, of course, that 18 out of 19 NATO members share the German government's view that the idea is fundamentally flawed.

Perhaps what got Bush so irked was Schroeder 's stridently anti-American rhetoric during the campaign. Granted, the chancellor overdid it a bit, and his former justice minister made some outrageous comments, which rightly cost her the job. None of this was particularly helpful for building solidarity, but there is no question that Schroeder is not the first European politician to capitalize on deeply seated disappointment with Washington's unilateralist tendencies. And the way things are going, he will assuredly not be the last.

Germany is one of the most pro-American countries anywhere, and it is by far the most Americanized part of Europe. I've had the good fortune to spend many summers there, and I can say from experience that a person from this side of the Atlantic feels more at home in Germany than anywhere else in continental Europe. The admiration Germans feel for Americans is staggering when compared to the visceral anti-American sentiment so common in the lands of Chirac and Berlusconi, Bush's favorite pals.

During the age of the superpowers, Germany didn't have a foreign policy, because it frankly didn't need one--America and the Soviet Union did the job.

Well, someone needs to tell Bush that the Cold War is over, the Berlin Wall is down, and no enemy army is about to cross the Fulda Gap. The kind of unanimity the United States was used to from its allies in the era of fallout shelters no longer applies today. If Bush now suggests that it's his way or the highway, we know which is the right choice. Gerhard Schroeder showed us.


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