The Odd Couple Do Germany

Posted: Jul 13, 2006 12:01 AM
The Odd Couple Do Germany

"George Bush Does Trinwillershagen" is a headline writer's nightmare, but the Germans are pleased that the president will meet their prime minister, Angela Merkel, in the heartland of her constituency. Trinwillershagen is a village as quaint as it sounds, once a frequent destination of communist biggies seeking a model rural village deep in the East German boonies. This week, George and Angela will chow down on barbecue -- wild boar, German style -- with her constituents.

The president will then discuss several contentious international issues with the prime minister in Stralsund, a neighboring medieval town, described by the German press as the rough equivalent of Crawford, Texas. It's not a ranch, and not very rough, but an office and apartment in the prime minister's parliamentary electoral base on the Baltic coast. If the German wall had not come tumbling down, she might still be a practicing physicist there rather than the most powerful woman in Europe.

This meeting promises to be far different from the president's "wurst visit" to call on Gerhard Schroeder, the prime minister who went out of his way to demonstrate that he was no friend of the president, all to exploit anti-American attitudes then rampant in the fatherland. Angela and George have been described as "the odd couple," a fresh partnership reflecting the change in United States-German relations, based on growing mutual admiration and personal chemistry born of common concerns.

The Germans still won't support the president on Iraq, but Iran is another matter entirely. The Iranian threat has transformed Germany's naive idealism into something approaching reluctant realism. Germans, according to a Pew poll of global attitudes, express the highest level of alarm over the prospect of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. For the moment, it's not even a partisan issue. "Germans know how dangerous a madman at the helm can be," Gert Weisskirchen, a foreign policy expert for the Social Democrats, tells der Spiegel magazine. The Germans, in fact, are likely to give strong support for sanctions if Iran rejects Western incentives to put aside nuclear ambitions. Germany, a staunch supporter of Israel in a continent awash in resurgent anti-Semitism, would likely be quick to defend the Jewish state if it were threatened by Iran.

But not even an unpredictable common enemy armed with doomsday weapons makes for a lovey-dovey relationship. German demonstrators on the far left, still dreaming of returning to the bleak old days of Marxist misery, are planning to show George W. what they think of him and the Americans. They have crafted a large effigy of the Statue of Liberty, with the lady with the lamp raising her middle finger, not her torch, in salute. Many of Mrs. Merkel's constituents stubbornly resist spending more on their defense, and they resent what they see as George W.'s instinct for going it alone if necessary. She has to summon the courage to make the tough economic reforms to reduce high unemployment. Her sharp tax increases and a sickly national health policy have already raised Teutonic ire.

But the Germans are nevertheless feeling pretty good about themselves, buoyed on the good feelings created by their hosting the successful World Cup games. After the fall of the Third Reich, the Germans were wary of showing anything smacking of patriotism, but they broke out the flags at the games. Even the Turks and Arabs living in Germany seemed to take pride in waving the black, red and gold banner.

The German team didn't quite make it to the finals, but demonstrated a virile exuberance, praised both for skill and sportsmanship (which a number of other teams were not). No heads were used for butting. Never particularly known for their warmth or sensuality, the Germans nevertheless put aside the cold stereotype when the visitors from all over the world arrived for soccer.

It's too early to tell whether Angela Merkel can assume the role of Margaret Thatcher, with whom she has been compared, and it's not likely that George W. can forge the relationship Ronald Reagan had with the Iron Lady. They don't, after all, exactly speak the same language. But they're the newest item, you might say, on the stage as they head to the G-8 economic summit in St. Petersburg. George W. might consult the guidelines someone posted on the Internet for World Cup visitors eager to successfully court frauleins: "Observe carefully and don't overreact. A welcome opening can occur when you least expect it. If she shows a flickering gesture in an otherwise impassive visage -- a smile, a knowing nod, a tilt toward interest -- it's time to make your move." Or, as Ronald Reagan would put it, "trust, but verify."