- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 12, 2006

Mixed marriage

It isn’t the full-fledged regime change his conservative allies were banking on, but new German Deputy Defense Minister Christian Schmidt argued that the “grand coalition” government of Chancellor Angela Merkel can do much to repair U.S.-German relations that frayed badly under Gerhard Schroeder, her predecessor.

Mr. Schmidt, a familiar face in Washington as a leading foreign policy voice for Germany’s Christian Socialists, acknowledged in an interview yesterday that the power-sharing deal of left and right in Berlin is not a “marriage of love,” our correspondent David R. Sands reports.

Key ministries in Mrs. Merkel’s Cabinet are almost evenly divided between the two parties, and new Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier comes from Mr. Schroeder’s center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) base.

But the September vote gave both major political blocs a little more than a third of the vote — a result that leaves both sides “condemned to succeed” in a compromise government, Mr. Schmidt said.

“It is a complicated solution, but if we reject the voters’ clear decision, what would be our alternative?” he said.

“Yes, there was some disappointment on our side, because we do not have the opportunity to ‘clean every room’ with a victory. But I have been astonished to see that the SPD is willing to play second fiddle in the government, because they have no alternatives, either.”

Mr. Schmidt said Mrs. Merkel’s low-key effectiveness was on display at the European Union budget summit in December. Many analysts credited her — not British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the summit’s chairman — with pushing through a spending compromise that saved the gathering from disaster.

Mrs. Merkel, who has vowed to improve the relations between Berlin and Washington of the Schroeder years, meets with President Bush in the Oval Office today in her first Washington visit since taking office.

Mr. Schmidt said that the Merkel government will follow the previous government’s policy of not sending troops into Iraq, but that the prohibition was “more symbolic than real.”

German forces are training their Iraqi counterparts in Abu Dhabi, and Germany is investing in Iraq’s economic recovery as well. Unlike Mr. Schroeder, Mrs. Merkel has refrained from sharp public criticism of the Iraq war.

On one perennial sore spot in U.S.-German ties, Mr. Schmidt conceded that Germany’s defense budget — 1.2 percent of the gross domestic product — “is not enough.” Berlin is under pressure from the European Union because of excessive government deficits, but Mr. Schmidt said the Defense Ministry is looking for savings and other ways to boost resources for the military.

In talks with Pentagon officials and Washington think tanks this week, Mr. Schmidt said he will press for a larger diplomatic profile for NATO, noting the trans-Atlantic military alliance has a number of “soft power” assets that could be used to fight terrorism.

‘Oh, boo!’

Many American diplomats on foreign assignments will be tuning in to cable and satellite TV stations tomorrow to cheer for the Washington Redskins in the team’s divisional playoff game.

Skins fans in Bogota, Colombia, can get the game on ESPN, while those in Britain can watch Sky TV. Others in more remote places will have to rely on the Armed Forces Network, one diplomat said.

Of course, not all diplomats will cheer on the home team of the American capital.

“I’m a Steelers fan, as is God, I hope,” said Partha Mazumdar, a Pittsburgh native and economics officer in the U.S. Embassy in London. As for the Redskins, he said, “Oh, boo!”

The Redskins battle the Seattle Seahawks in the National Football Conferencetomorrow, and the Pittsburgh Steelers take on the Indianapolis Colts in the American Football Conference on Sunday. The other AFC playoff game pits the New England Patriots against the Denver Broncos tomorrow, while the Carolina Panthers and the Chicago Bears fight in the NFC playoff Sunday. The winners will face each other in conference championship games on Jan. 22.

Call Embassy Row at 202/636-3297, fax 202/832-7278 or e-mail jmorrison@washingtontimes.com.

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