George W. Bush has a way with the ladies. You could ask Condi, Karen, Harriet (and of course Laura). Now another fraulein has sauntered onto the scene, looking for extra public (and private) courting. The new interest is Angela Merkel, who is about to be the first woman chancellor of Germany. Foreign women, as any good old boy could tell you, aren't always as easy to impress as one of the locals. They not only play hard to get, but they've got other men eager to fill in their dance cards.
Frau Merkel follows Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who was downright hostile to the president, encouraging a "special relationship" with Russian President Vladimir Putin while indulging frequent insults aimed at Washington. The new chancellor can change all that. But it won't be easy.
Three weeks after the inconclusive German election, often compared to the U.S. presidential election of 2000 because it, too, went into overtime, Angela Merkel emerged with a Mona Lisa smirk.
With Gerhard Schroeder finally out of a spotlight he monopolized for seven years, she moves into her own special place in the television lights. At the press conference where she announced the deal that would make her chancellor, she enjoyed an aura of Cinderella, a woman who needs no glass slipper to dance among the bits of glass that showered from the ceiling that she shattered. But she had to hurry through the brief moment of euphoria. At midnight, the carriage, just like Cinderella's, turned into a pumpkin, and the snow-white horses became mice scurrying across the landscape where friend and foe began taking potshots. The "grand coalition" sounded more like a grand-standing coalition. If Leni Reifenstahl had made this movie, she would have called it the "Triumph of the Weak." The new chancellor had to barter away eight important ministries to her rival party, including the two most crucial of all, foreign affairs and finance.
But if optimism isn't the proper mood of the moment, neither is pessimism, especially when we consider Germany's relationship with the United States. The coalition partners expect a correction course in the relationship with Russia that Herr Schroeder fashioned at American expense. Though Mrs. Merkel won't send troops to Iraq to participate in a war exceedingly unpopular with the Germans, she will no doubt smooth some of those feathers Herr Schroeder took such delight in ruffling.
"We are against a special relationship with Russia," says Wolfgang Schaeuble, the conservative party's senior foreign policy spokesman, who is slated to be interior minister in the new cabinet. Ties with Europe won't prevent Germany and its continental allies from seeking better relations with the Americans: "Failure in Iraq will be a catastrophe maybe even more for Europe than the United States."
William R. Timken Jr., the new American ambassador to Germany, thinks the change in chancellors offers fresh opportunities: "It does help when everyone starts new because they don't have preconceived experience or conditions in their mind." He echoes Mrs. Merkel's theme of "a coalition of new possibilities."
Chancellor Schroeder succeeded in poisoning the German relationship with the United States by transforming the anti-Iraq war sentiment into a deep anti-Americanism in both his 2002 and 2005 campaigns. Henry Kissinger notes in the German newsmagazine der Spiegel that Herr Schroeder was the very reason that German foreign policy lost its flexibility in relations with the United States. Before Herr Schroeder, America's arguments with Germany were "arguments within a family." The United States understood the ordeal of a divided Germany and rejoiced in its reunification. Chancellor Schroeder spoiled the common interest and common cause.
In his farewell speech last week, Chancellor Schroeder had tears for his countrymen and only daggers for Americans, going out of his way to make a ham-handed attack on George W. Bush for his response to Hurricane Katrina. "I can think of a recent disaster that shows what happens when a country neglects its duties of state towards its people," he said, as a way of warning against economic reforms that would threaten Germany's disastrously bloated and inefficient welfare state. "My post as chancellor, which I still hold, does not allow me to name that country, but you all know that I am talking about America." Ha, ha.
Angela Merkel, who grew up in East Germany when the wall separated it from the prosperity and freedoms of the West, knows about the dreariness and deprivation of life in a socialist state. She can appreciate the reforms it will take to reduce Germany's double-digit unemployment and to make her country competitive again. During the campaign, she exchanged her drab East German style and demeanor for brighter colors, a chic hairdo and friendly smiles. She won't turn heads (of state), but George W. is likely to have a new ladyfriend.