- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 31, 2002

Today is the third time in 10 months that German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder meets with President George W. Bush in Washington. A remarkable frequency although their first encounter was the worst start one can imagine.

Mr. Schroder's visit with the newly elected President Bush on March 29 was overshadowed by the harsh dissent between the European Union and Mr. Bush about global warming. It was then Mr. Schroder's task to hand over in the name of all EU leaders a request to Mr. Bush to change his mind about the refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol. After the meeting, Mr. Schroder remarked to the German press: "I made it clear to the American president that between our two countries exist significant differences, especially on issues about environment and human rights."

This was the typical tone of the German Social Democrats as well as of their coalition partner, the Greens, and of the majority of the German public. A tide of hostile comments in the media and in the national legislature made clear that a widening difference over values and political problems has now opened publicly.

Since unification in 1990, Germany was occupied mainly with itself. And if it looked abroad, especially to the United States, it got the conviction that its society has become superior. A biased German press fueled this notion of superiority over the American society by pointing to Germany's lower crime rate, far fewer inmates, much smaller income gaps, far better health care and social system, and nearly no poverty.

Along with this criticism of the United States emerged an unwillingness to recognize the weakness within Germany's own system. Germans like to emphasize, for example, great disgust about the gun laws in the United States. Who of them would imagine that the annual death toll in Germany, caused by ruthless high-speed drivers, is per capita higher than the number of people killed by guns in the United States? But no one blames the German "gun lobby," the car industry, for barbarian habits.

Germans are also convinced that their public school system is one of the best in the world, at least better than America's. A recent international study, however, brought the bitter truth to the light: The education and knowledge of Germany's students and teachers is one of the lowest in comparison with other industrialized countries, far behind the United States. Maybe this is one of the unrecognized reasons for the persistently high unemployment rate of 10 percent in Germany.

One has to take into account this German attitude when it comes to the September 11 attack on America. While hundreds of thousands of perplexed Germans expressed in many convincing ways their deep and honest sympathy with the American people, some leading media figures and left-leaning politicians expressed (too) quickly their concern about a possible revenge strike of Mr. Bush. And while Mr. Bush wisely took his time to build a coalition first, they were nevertheless quick to criticize him.

Certain notorious anti-American media, parts of the governing Social Democratic Party (SPD), and all of the Greens, who form a coalition with the SPD, were deeply concerned about Germany being drawn into a war by the United States. As a German living in Washington, one of the terrorist targets, it was amazing how quickly after September 11 the public discussion in my home country turned away from the actual terrorist threat and focused on the failed American Middle-East policy, and American behavior. In short, policy-makers and prominent journalists made it clear that, in their opinion, the United States did provoke this terrorist attack.

And, although they didn't dare to say it, they meant: That's why the United States should deal with the problem on its own. One female member of the city council of Berlin even exclaimed that the Twin Towers of New York sooner or later anyway should have been torn down, because they were nothing else but phallus symbols.

In this critical situation, one man understood completely what was at stake for Germany and took the lead. Mr. Schroder, head of the SPD, expressed in his first speech after the terrorist attack the "unlimited support" of the German government for the United States. A bold promise, he had to learn. His coalition partner, the Greens, who derive mainly from the anti-Vietnam War peace movement of the 1970s, made clear that they would oppose any dispatch of German troops outside of Europe, unless they received a U.N. mandate. Mr. Schroder instead visited Ground Zero on Oct. 9 and renewed his promise that the U.S. government would receive any support Germany is able to contribute, troops included. Despite many comments by the press, his party companions and members of the Green Party, Mr. Schroder succeeded with his conviction. But he had to threaten his own party and coalition partner with dissolving the government if they would not follow him.

Looking around the world after September 11, this is unique. Germany was the only country that faced a deep, domestic governmental crisis after the terrorist attack on America, scarcely noticed by the rest of the world. Surely, Mr. Schroder is discussing with Mr. Bush today further details of his "unlimited support." And it will be interesting for the United States to see how this European ally will develop in the near future.

Mr Schroder is already campaigning for re-election for the fall this year. While normally a candidate would like to sugar his voters with promises to change everything for the better, Mr. Schroder faces the bitter reality of a lasting economic recession and a dramatically underfunded German army. His secretary of justice, Otto Schilly, is involved in a secret-service scandal concerning the prohibition of the Neo-Nazi Party NPD and the Greens remain an unreliable coalition partner, to name just some problems.

But Mr. Schroder's most challenging task will be to make clear to his pampered compatriots that the era of "Sleepy Hollow" is over, that they have to get ready to care for themselves and that the biggest and most powerful European nation has finally reached maturity. Unless Mr. Schroder or his challenger, Christian Democrat Edmund Stoiber, will be able to get their nation ready for the tasks of the 21st century, Germany will remain a difficult and hard-to-lean-on ally of the United States.

Joseph T. Goeller is the Washington correspondent of the German weekly Das Parlament.

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