Published on Thursday, September 19, 2002 in the Washington Post
U.S.-Style Campaign With Anti-U.S. Theme
German Gains by Opposing Iraq Attack
by Peter Finn
BERLIN, Sept. 18 -- These are unusual times in Germany. The most Americanized election campaign in German history is being fueled and possibly decided by the most strident opposition to American policy in recent memory.
And if preelection public opinion polls are any indicator, this new environment has resurrected the candidacy of Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who just weeks ago was being written off by political analysts because of the country's faltering economy.
Normally party names and symbols are what count in German campaigning. But they have been largely replaced this time around by images of a back-slapping Schroeder in rolled-up sleeves. The personalization of politics is just as pronounced among the once communal Greens, represented by the popular, avuncular foreign minister, Joschka Fischer.
It would all seem very American if it weren't for the message that has helped resuscitate the chancellor: Hell no, we won't go.
Since he first stated his opposition to a U.S. attack on Iraq, and then ratcheted up the anti-war message step by step, Schroeder has ticked steadily up in the polls, by some counts closing the long-standing lead of the conservatives, led by Edmund Stoiber.
Tapping into the ingrained antipathy to military action among millions of voters, Schroeder has said that under no circumstances will Germans go to war with Iraq, not even with a U.N. mandate. He has dismissed Bush administration policy as an "adventure." Going along with it, he has said, would amount to "subordination."
"Under my leadership, Germany will not participate in military action," Schroeder said on the floor of Parliament on Friday.
He has argued that the United States has not presented a sufficient case for war and that U.N. pressure and weapons inspectors should be given a chance to address questions about Iraq's arsenal. An attack might throw the entire Middle East into turmoil and undermine the coalition against terrorism, he has warned.
"I'm glad Schroeder is being so firm," said Silke Mueller, 29, a Berliner who will vote Sunday for the first time. "His stance -- when he clearly says 'no!' -- is how I feel."
Growing public exasperation with the United States over its opposition to the global warming treaty and to an international court to try suspected war criminals has cleared the way for Schroeder. In earlier years, such talk might have been counterproductive in a country where firm transatlantic ties have long been the foundation of a foreign policy consensus.
Schroeder's shift has also largely buried the resentment felt in the left wing of his coalition when he pledged "unlimited solidarity" with the United States after Sept. 11 and dispatched German troops to the Afghan theater, their farthest overseas deployment since World War II.
Washington has not been quiet about its objections. Ambassador Daniel R. Coats has protested the statements in meetings at the chancellery, Germany's version of the White House. And today he told an audience of business people in Frankfurt that Schroeder's stance has damaged relations with the United States, the Reuters news agency reported.
Among European leaders, Schroeder is alone. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, for instance, has given strong support to President Bush on Iraq, while French President Jacques Chirac has been willing to leave the option of force on the table to pressure Iraq.
With his strong opposition to war, Schroeder has offended some of his neighbors by upending the idea that Germany, above all others, would always seek European consensus on key foreign policy issues. His use of a historically loaded term -- "a German way" -- to describe his strategy has contributed to the discomfort.
"He is using Iraq in a very undiplomatic way," said Juergen Falter, a professor of political of science at the University of Mainz. "He is shattering a lot of porcelain, but he wants to win this election. Instead of 'no, no, no,' Schroeder could have said 'but, but, but.' It wouldn't have the same electoral effect, however. And right now, Schroeder has only one aim: to win."
The big question for many people is whether he will carry through on his rhetoric if he wins. In interviews, French and British officials said they believe that a reelected Schroeder would find enough wiggle room to back any U.N. mandate that supports an invasion. They predicted he would also try to patch things up by increasing the German presence in peacekeeping operations in the Balkans or Afghanistan.
While Schroeder argues that Germany must think for itself, the officials argued that Schroeder has set back growing German aspirations to be a full and robust partner of the United States.
Germany has already offered a measure of atonement to the United States by declining to seek the extradition from Pakistan of Ramzi Binalshibh. Germany last year issued an arrest warrant for this important al Qaeda suspect, who had lived in Hamburg with Sept. 11 hijackers and is thought to have been one of the planners of the attacks. But the government deferred to the United States, which quickly flew Binalshibh out of Pakistan.
And officials in Berlin said they hope that Bush, whose party is facing difficult midterm elections, recognizes the necessities of politics.
"Germany may not be consulted in the short term, but the effects will not last forever because there are national interests on both sides and the allies can't keep Germany out of the game," said Falter. "But let's say the atmospherics will not be good for a while."
With the voting just four days away, some opinion polls now give Schroeder's Social Democratic party a narrow lead over the conservatives.
But a survey released Tuesday by the Allensbach Institute has the conservatives remaining ahead, if narrowly, 37.3 percent compared to 37 percent for the Social Democrats.
One month ago, polls showed the Social Democrats 5 points behind, as Stoiber relentlessly attacked his opponent's economic record and his failure to meet a promise to reduce the unemployment rolls, which stand at nearly 4 million.
Stoiber, the governor of Bavaria, a large, prosperous southern state, argued that his policies had helped create its economic success and promised to apply the same kind of management to the country. Stoiber is leader of his state's Christian Social Union, the sister party of the national Christian Democratic Union.
In early August, with the conservatives on the offensive, Schroeder appeared rattled. But then nature struck. Heavy rains caused the River Elbe to burst its banks, devastating such cities as Dresden. Schroeder immediately donned his Wellington boots and the mantle of a leader who would rebuild the east. Stoiber was caught flat-footed on vacation at the North Sea.
Buoyed by the rising water, Schroeder then seized on Iraq. Facing Stoiber in the second of two televised debates, the first such American-style, head-to-head contests here, he asked: "The decisive question in war and peace is: Will German soldiers take part under your leadership, yes or no?"
Stoiber faltered in his response although he, too, is no supporter of preemptive strikes. But he argued that Germany could not rule out participation in a conflict if there was a U.N. Security Council mandate endorsing action. He also accused Schroeder of toying dangerously with "anti-Americanism."
The strategy has deflected attention from the issue on which Schroeder is most vulnerable, analysts said. "Iraq moved unemployment back to the second most important issue for voters," said Richard Hilmer, managing director of the Infratest dimap polling agency. "It was really a quite amazing development."
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