Angela Merkel, the opposition candidate in the coming German parliamentary elections, has been called "the German Margaret Thatcher," but the press treats her more like Hillary Clinton, circa 1993. She isn't dressing for success.
In an attempt to make their Iron Lady ("eiserne Dame") look more casual, her campaign handlers scheduled a photo-op on her fishing holiday. She posed in baggy trousers and sneakers, standing next to a big fish. A distaff Ernest Hemingway she is not.
This wouldn't be important if she still had the comfortable lead over Chancellor Gerhard Schroder she held through the spring, but the lead has melted with the heat of summer. In the era of image over all, she has not played to her strengths as a strategist. She isn't saying how she would put unemployed Germans -- and there are lots of them -- back to work.
A weakened Angela Merkel is worrisome for the United States, because Chancellor Schroder, who won an election three years ago by running against George W. Bush, is making similar noises of desperation again.
"Prior to the last German election," reports der Spiegel, the German newsmagazine, "Gerhard Schroder went on the offensive against U.S. military intervention in Iraq, and now -- like the leopard who cannot change his spots -- Schroder has pulled the same trick again, warning the U.S. against an invasion of Iran."
This time he's attacking a straw man who hardly resembles President Bush. Too bad for him, the president is not invading Iran. What the chancellor seized on was the president's answer to an Israeli reporter's question about whether force would ever be used to prevent the Iranian nuclear enrichment program, a necessary prelude to building nuclear weapons. "All options are on the table," Mr. Bush replied. "The use of force is the last option for any president." What else could any American president say?
The next day, the German leopard leaped at a phantom. "Let's leave the military option aside," he told a campaign rally. "We have seen it doesn't amount to anything." It was a particularly obtuse reading of the president's remarks -- to say nothing of history -- by a German chancellor.
Angela Merkel's campaign is in trouble not because she won't win a plurality of the vote, which she probably will, but because she might not win the absolute majority required in the German system before a challenging party can take power. Without the majority, her conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) might have to form a coalition with Chancellor Schroder's Social Democratic Party (SPD), further paralyzing the government and putting off the reforms needed to resuscitate the moribund German economy.
Frau Merkel wants to be George W.'s friend, and she has scolded the chancellor for damaging relations with Washington. The chancellor's injection of Iran into the election campaign is not without severe risks. Wolfgang Schauble, the foreign policy chief of Frau Merkel's party, calls him callously irresponsible. "He's acting as though the problem were in Washington, rather than in Tehran, even though he knows that isn't the case," he said. "The chancellor is creating the fatal impression in Tehran that the international community is not resolute."
A foreign-policy spokesman for another dissenting party agrees: "The subject is too serious for it to be introduced into the German election campaign, in any form." At the moment, the leader of Germany, along with those of France and even Britain, is trying to wipe away the traces of Iranian egg. Only two years ago the foreign ministers of the three countries returned home, having persuaded Iran to suspend temporarily its uranium conversion and enrichment program, sounding a lot like Neville Chamberlain after Munich, declaring that their "soft diplomacy" worked. Now they're all decrying betrayal.
The mullahs in Tehran insist that Iran will produce uranium fuel only for civilian nuclear-power plants, never for the production of nuclear weapons. But you'd have to believe in the Easter bunny to believe that, and the Easter bunny doesn't make deliveries in Islamic countries.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), meant to monitor Iran's nuclear conversions, is a cocker spaniel of a watchdog. When the mullahs resumed enriching uranium, Mohamed ElBaradei, the director of the monitors, told the mullahs that he hoped "this is a hiccup in the process and not a permanent rupture." Bow, wow.
Well, there's still a little left of summer, and I'm off to the beach with my visiting Berliner twin granddaughters (and their parents) for a belated celebration of their first birthdays, to take the sun and put my feet in the sand. But the sand is no place for wise heads elsewhere, as Angela Merkel is trying to warn her countrymen.