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Jewish World Review Jan. 12, 2006/ 12 Teves, 5766

Suzanne Fields

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The cowboy and the angel | When Angela Merkel meets President Bush in Washington this week, the first German head of state arrives as the most powerful woman on the world stage. That sounds grander than it may be, since she has no like number anywhere else. Nor is she a Margaret Thatcher, with whom she has been compared. Her election was not a mandate for great change.

But her Luftwaffe Airbus arrives on a brisk tail wind of popularity. She's had successful foreign visits in Brussels, Belgium, and Warsaw, Poland, no longer the dowdy diplomat, and the Germans seem to be warming to substance as much as to her jazzed-up style.

Not everything she says about the United States is warm and fuzzy. She aims criticism at the detention of terror suspects at Guantanamo Bay. "An institution like Guantanamo in its present form cannot and must not exist in the long term," she told the newsmagazine der Spiegel. The U.S. response was muted: "I think everybody hopes we get to a point where we don't need facilities like this," a State Department spokesman replied, "but we are not at that point."

But the animosity that marked the tone created by her predecessor was gone. The newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung observed that her criticism "stems from her friendship and shared values with the United States," with none of the "moral grandstanding" of Gerhard Schroeder. She seeks "to improve the quality and substance of the German-American relationship."

That's a big change. Henry Kissinger famously described power as the "great aphrodisiac," and without taking that too literally, it's clear that Frau Merkel holds an advantage over Schroeder, whose dislike of President Bush was returned. Her visit to Washington may reveal whether the cowboy and the Angel(a) can create "a coalition of new possibilities."

Its antecedents go back to February 2003, when Merkel, as opposition candidate, said positive things about the war in Iraq with an op-ed essay in The Washington Post headlined "Schroeder Doesn't Speak for All Germans." She observed that the danger in Iraq was "not fictitious, but real." She argued that ". . . the history of Germany and Europe in the 20th century in particular certainly teaches us . . . that while military force cannot be the normal continuation of politics by other means, it must never be ruled out . . . as has been done by the German federal government as the ultimate means of dealing with dictators."

While such fightin' words upset some Germans, even in her own party, they were music to certain ears in Washington and were followed by a long lunch at the Pentagon with Donald Rumsfeld. On this trip, she's staying at Blair House, the elegant guest house reserved for special guests on Pennsylvania Avenue, just across from the White House. The media buzz anticipates a positive change in the "chemistry" of the two leaders, and there's a reasonable hope for warmer ties between Washington and Berlin.

Just as Ronald Reagan built a trusting relationship with Margaret Thatcher, renewing the special relationship with our English cousins, George W. could do the same with Merkel. Jackson Janes, executive director of the American Institute for Contemporary German studies, says it won't be easy and will require a dance of delicate balance. The German public still doesn't like the man Germans call "the cowboy."

"Bush needs to deliver a public message of having confidence in and respect for the German leader, including an acceptance of differences of views and approaches to the foreign policy agenda," writes Janes. "That will help her back home and in Brussels; it will also help Bush develop the basis for a stronger partnership."

In my frequent visits to Berlin, I've seen a changed attitude toward Frau Merkel, reflecting a growing appreciation of her mettle and forthrightness. "Within a few weeks, she has not just freed herself from the suspicion of being diplomatically naive," says the Berliner Zeitung, "she has even managed to approach the U.S. government with a self-confidence which Schroeder could never have ventured after his election campaign escapades."

Unlike Herr Schroeder, she doesn't insist that the European Union lift the arms embargo against China until there's a full discussion of American concerns about Chinese arms trading with troublemakers, and several feel-good occasions lie just ahead. Germany will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Berlin airlift next year and the 60th anniversary of the Marshall Plan in 2009. Winston Churchill took the measure of the Germans on the eve of World War II with his observation that "the Hun is always at your throat or at your feet." Maybe George and Angie can do better, walking arm and arm.

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© 2005, Suzanne Fields, Creators Syndicate