Published on Thursday, September 5, 2002 in the New York Times
German Leader's Warning: War Plan Is a Huge Mistake
by Steven Erlanger
HANOVER, Germany — Gerhard Schröder, the German chancellor, believes that the Bush administration is making a terrible mistake in planning a war against Iraq, and he is not afraid to say so.
A new war in the Middle East, he says bluntly, would put at risk all that has been gained so far in the unfinished battle against Al Qaeda.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, Germany offered "unconditional solidarity" and support to the United States as "a self-evident duty, as a friend," he said in an interview at his home here. Fighting Iraq, which he regards as entirely separate from fighting Al Qaeda, could shatter that unity.
"I think it would be a big mistake if this feeling of needing one another should be destroyed by excessively unilateral actions," he said.
Consultation is important, he said, "but consultation cannot mean that I get a phone call two hours in advance only to be told, `We're going in.' "
"Consultation among grown-up nations has to mean not just consultation about the how and the when, but also about the whether," he said.
Mr. Schröder is in the midst of a fierce election campaign that some say has influenced his stand, a suggestion he denied. "We will win in Germany, and then I will have to stick by this decision, and I know what that means," the chancellor, a Social Democrat, said.
His stand on Iraq is a departure for Germany, traditionally a staunch ally at moments of crisis. Many Germans feel indebted to the United States for helping shape modern Germany and are uneasy about charting an independent course on issues of such gravity.
Mr. Schröder made time in his garden to reflect on the events of Sept. 11, their impact on America's relations with its allies and the talk of war with Iraq.
Recalling Sept. 11, he praised President Bush and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell for their skill in quickly rallying an international coalition against terror. With the terrorist strikes, he said, the world understood it was facing "a privatized form of war, waged by terrorist organizations," that must be fought "using appropriate means, including military means."
Informal, sometimes smoking a cigar, Mr. Schröder emphasized Germany's close ties to the United States and its people. He and his wife, Doris, were greatly moved by the Sept. 11 attacks. His wife talks of living in America again, but Mr. Schröder has his eyes set first on the Sept. 22 election.
His stance on Iraq has appealed to those Germans who oppose war and are skeptical of Bush administration assertions that Iraq must be overthrown, not simply contained.
Senior officials in Washington are angry at his presumption that the American debate over Iraq is finished and his failure to give his closest ally the benefit of the doubt. They believe he is damaging the alliance for electoral advantage and is running against America.
But Mr. Schröder believes that his policy is prudent and coherent. He insists that the goal must be to pressure Saddam Hussein to allow weapons inspectors unconditional access — not to go to war regardless to overthrow Mr. Hussein, as Vice President Dick Cheney has suggested.
Mr. Schröder threw up his hands. "How can you exert pressure on someone by saying to them, `Even if you accede to our demands, we will destroy you'?" he asked. "I think that was a change of strategy in the United States — whatever the explanation may be — a change that made things difficult for others, including ourselves."
Referring to Mr. Cheney, Mr. Schröder said: "The problem is that he has or seems to have committed himself so strongly that it is hard to imagine how he can climb down. And that is the real problem, that not only I have, but that all of us in Europe have."
Mr. Schröder emphasized that he had put his own job on the line when he pushed his Social Democratic and Green coalition to vote for German deployment of troops in the war against Al Qaeda, and said it was his duty to do so. Germany, he noted, has some 10,000 troops serving abroad, second only to the United States, in Afghanistan, the Middle East and the Balkans — so "no one can criticize us for lacking international solidarity."
But Iraq is different, he insists, and he said he resented finding out first from the media about the Cheney speech. Because he was prepared to call a vote of confidence on Afghanistan, he said, "it is just not good enough if I learn from the American press about a speech which clearly states, `We are going to do it, no matter what the world or our allies think.' That is no way to treat others."
Mr. Schröder said he had seen no new evidence indicating that the military danger from Iraq had increased, and so questions the administration's urgency. He says he believes "no one has a really clear idea of the political order that would follow in the Middle East" or of the effects of a war on the stability of moderate Arab states, or the cohesion of the antiterror coalition. There has been little discussion, he says, of the economic consequences, in particular the price of oil, for the rest of the world.
The war against Osama bin Laden is not finished, he said. "My concern," he said, "is that we have not even begun to achieve in Afghanistan anything that could be called nation-building."
Germany cares what resolutions the United Nations adopts, Mr. Schröder said. But the harm to the coalition, the lack of a concept for a new Middle East and the need to succeed in Afghanistan trump everything else for him. "These arguments," he said, "make me say, `Hands off' " — especially, he added, since the evidence of an increased threat from Iraq "appears to be highly dubious."
Sept. 11 made Americans more determined on the issue of terrorism, he said, but did not change the American democracy or the ability to conduct a strong debate on issues like Iraq.
Sept. 11 had an enormous impact on the Germans, too, he said. "The large demonstration in Berlin by 200,000 or 300,000 people was in fact a spontaneous expression of sympathy and solidarity. And I also experienced it much closer to home — if I may be permitted to say so — since my wife had once lived not far away, on the Upper West Side."
New York also has special meaning to the world as a place of refuge for those forced to leave their own country, Mr. Schröder said, adding: "New York is thus a symbol of asylum. This was very much the case during the Nazi period in Germany, and this gives New York a very special importance."
He knows Washington is angry with him, but he thinks officials misunderstand what real friends he and Germany remain. "What is the duty of a friend in such a situation?" he asked. "The duty of friends is not just to agree with everything, but to say, `We disagree on this point.' That is what I believe to be the duty of friends in relations between individuals, just as it is in relations between nations, if one happens to disagree. And on this point" — Iraq — "we disagree, or I disagree."
He says he did what he thought was right when he put his job on the line to send troops to Afghanistan, "and now I am again doing what I think to be right," he said. "It is something that has to be done, and one has to have the strength to do it if one holds this office."
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