- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 6, 2006

ANKARA, Turkey. — Seven months ago in these pages, I wrote that Angela Merkel, then the Christian Democrat candidate in Germany’s elections, had not “strained any muscles riding to the rescue of America’s reputation” and that she had earned her label as “a letdown.” I predicted her assumption to the position of chancellor would constitute only a “moderate improvement” in U.S.-German relations.

Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maximum dummkopf.

After about five months in office Chancellor Merkel’s style has gone from frumpy to feisty, and her rhetoric in office, from an American perspective, has been downright dreamy.

From 1998 to 2005, Germany’s voice on the world stage was Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, offering a dark and bitter brew of America-bashing, cynicism, cheap opportunism and mealy mouthed platitudes. True to his character, Mr. Schroeder is now a $300,000 per year consultant for a Russian energy consortium with ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, a job that he accepted about two weeks after leaving office.

To call Mrs. Merkel a breath of fresh air is an understatement. Addressing German legislators on March 29, she shocked Berlin’s staid foreign-policy establishment with a stirring address outlining a tough-minded determination to stand up for German principles abroad.

She cited the case of Abdul Rahman, the Afghan convert to Christianity who faced the death penalty. (Rahman is now safely in Italy.) Mrs. Merkel was among those applying the most diplomatic pressure on the Afghan regime, along with officials in the United States and Italy. Mrs. Merkel declared it “appalling” and was among the first to telephone Afghan president Hamid Karzai and twist some arms diplomatically.

Regarding Iran’s nuclear program, Mrs. Merkel has taken a much tougher line than her predecessor. She compared Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Adolf Hitler. After he threatened to wipe Israel off the map, Mrs. Merkel declared, “Iran has blatantly crossed the red line. I say it as a German chancellor. A president who questions Israel’s right to exist, a president who denies the Holocaust, cannot expect to receive any tolerance from Germany.”

She also denounced Belarussian President Aleksandr Lukashenko and the recent unfree, unfair elections in that country, and demonstrated much more idealism and fire in the belly on issues not related to the war on terror. She strongly defended a controversial plan to send German troops to Congo, where they are scheduled to monitor that country’s parliamentary elections in June.

Perhaps most strikingly, Mrs. Merkel ripped into a widespread and disingenuous perspective among German political elites, who loudly call for thorny international crises to be referred to the United Nations, knowing that in all likelihood the United Nations will do nothing. This is strong stuff for European politics, where a joke about President George W. Bush always gets a laugh and vapid pledges for “multilateralism” or “multipolarity” garner rote applause.

Mrs. Merkel isn’t a one-note cheerleader for U.S. policies; she’s criticized the Bush administration for the detention of al Qaeda at Guantanamo Bay and periodically made other criticisms of U.S. policies in Iraq. But even here she has a substantive distinction with Mr. Schroeder; Mrs. Merkel actually makes these arguments to Mr. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in face-to-face meetings; she doesn’t use them as cheap applause lines before German audiences.

We hear a lot about how the Bush administration has wrecked relations with our European allies, a complaint that was always overwrought and is now increasingly inaccurate. Tony Blair remains prime minister of Britain; whether he retires in the coming months or further in the future, his successor, Gordon Brown, will find many aspects of the Bush-Blair partnership locked in. Silvio Berlusconi has a good chance of re-election in Italy on April 9, and even his center-left opponent admits his foreign policy on Iraq will be indistinguishable from the current policy, a gradual withdrawal based on the Iraqi government’s requests. And many Europeans, after witnessing the violent reaction in the Islamic world over some Danish cartoons, are realizing that the U.S. aim to stomp out Islamist terrorist groups around the globe isn’t just the PR cover for some sinister conspiracy tied to oil interests.

And now, with Mrs. Merkel restoring good relations with Washington, the anti-American chief executives in Europe are fewer.

In France, Jacques Chirac, Dominique de Villepin and Nicolas Sarkozy have their hands full with a sclerotic economy and a youth population willing to conduct violent riots demanding guaranteed lifetime employment — on top of the car-burning attacks by often-Muslim and North Africa youths last autumn. In Spain, Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has found his anti-American positions have a price — he’s still waiting for his first one-on-one meeting with Mr. Bush.

As she basks in approval ratings that are among the highest ever for a German chancellor, maybe Angela Merkel could offer a word of advice for European leaders who are learning that anti-American rhetoric isn’t the cure-all it once was.

Jim Geraghty is a contributing editor to National Review.

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