BERLIN — Droll and self-assured despite a spate of ecological and diplomatic crises, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder stood by his holstered guns Wednesday in reiterating his refusal to back a U.S. military strike against Iraq.
Though Schroeder has been chastised by Washington for calling the emerging plans for such an assault a military "adventure," the German leader insisted that his relationship with the White House remains intact.
"We have a solid foundation in our relations on which we can discuss what should or shouldn't happen in Iraq," Schroeder told the Foreign Press Assn. "Friendship doesn't mean that you agree all the time on every single issue."
As evidence of the transatlantic partnership's endurance through disagreement, Schroeder noted that Europeans have had to live with the Bush administration's decision last year to abandon the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which is aimed at reducing emissions of so-called greenhouse gases. That dispute was particularly troubling in recent days because torrential rains and flooding ravaging Germany have been blamed by some scientists on global warming.
Schroeder reiterated that Germany was unprepared to take part in any military action against Iraq without United Nations Security Council authorization and broader discussion within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Other European members of the alliance also have expressed reservations about U.S. intentions.
The chancellor added that even in U.S. political circles there is mounting skepticism about a go-it-alone attack to punish Iraqi President Saddam Hussein for allegedly producing weapons of mass destruction.
On Tuesday, opponents seeking Hussein's overthrow took four people hostage at the Iraqi Embassy here, in a short-lived attempt to spotlight the U.S.-led push for a change of regime in Iraq. Before they were overpowered by police and taken into custody, the five members of the little-known Democratic Iraqi Opposition of Germany also said they were trying to heighten German awareness of the crisis in their homeland.
U.S. Ambassador Daniel R. Coats called on Schroeder's office last week to express Washington's "disappointment" over the chancellor's recent statements about Iraq, which the White House as well as the chancellor's political opponents have characterized as electioneering. Schroeder is facing an uphill battle for reelection next month.
In an interview Tuesday with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper, Coats disputed the German government's characterization of his meeting with Schroeder advisors as a courtesy call to clarify both sides' positions. Coats said he wasn't seeking clarifications from the Chancellery but confirmation of its support for President Bush's declared war against terrorism, the conservative newspaper reported.
Asked at the meeting with foreign journalists if he felt pressured by the White House to fall in line with its Iraq policy, Schroeder joked that there was no occasion for either side to apply thumbscrews to force its position on the other.
"See, my thumbs are completely uninjured!" the 58-year-old chancellor insisted, holding up both digits for inspection.
In his wide-ranging exchange, Schroeder focused on the daunting challenge facing his country to rebuild after billions of dollars in damage inflicted by record flooding along the Elbe River. From the baroque architectural treasures of Dresden to agriculture and modernized industries, much of the investment in reconstructing eastern Germany since the nation's 1990 reunification has been wiped out by the natural disaster.
Flood waters have receded in Dresden, leaving germ-ridden muck throughout the historic Old Town, but downriver sites such as the city of Magdeburg and the farming communities of Brandenburg state were still battling the swollen Elbe on Wednesday. In the town of Wittenberge, 20,000 people were being evacuated as the river washed away levees. Even in regions where the waters have crested, few of the 80,000 Germans already forced from their homes earlier in the two-week disaster have been able to return because of fears of damage to their homes' foundations.
"This has been the federal government's biggest deployment in postwar history," Schroeder said of the 50,000 troops, emergency service workers and border guards engaged in a rolling effort to shore up dikes and protect bridges. An additional 100,000 civilian volunteers also are struggling against the swells coursing northward.
Schroeder vowed to rebuild and predicted that the massive effort would stimulate the economy as well as revive Germans' self-confidence and industriousness.
Despite the ecological damage--and some say because of it--Schroeder's political standing has been rising as Germans have positively assessed his crisis-management skills. His Social Democratic Party remains 6 to 8 percentage points behind the conservative Christian Democratic Union, but Schroeder has maintained or widened his lead over challenger Edmund Stoiber in polls measuring the candidates' approval ratings.
Schroeder was confident that his governing coalition with the environmentalist Greens will be returned to office after the Sept. 22 vote, insisting that Germans don't hold the government responsible for poor economic performance resulting from a global downturn.
Asked why his party lags behind the opposition while he still handily beats out Stoiber, Schroeder replied with as much confidence as humor: "I ask myself that all the time."