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No Thaw in German-U.S. Ties

Top official says his nation has not decided whether to allow use of its bases for war on Iraq.

November 01, 2002|Paul Richter | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- Chilled by a frigid reception from the Bush administration during a visit here, German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said Thursday that his nation hasn't decided yet whether U.S. forces will be allowed to use bases in Germany if the United States launches a war against Iraq.

It would be almost unthinkable for such an important NATO ally to deny the United States access to bases that have played a key role in U.S. military action in the Middle East over the past decades. But Fischer's comments underscored how little progress has been made toward repairing relations ruptured after German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder made statements during his reelection campaign opposing a war with Iraq.

In a breakfast with reporters, Fischer stressed his hopes for an improvement in relations. But when asked about use of the U.S. bases, he noted that Germany has said it would "play no role" in military action, adding that the question is at this point a "theoretical one" that must be "discussed and decided when we reach the situation."

Fischer's visit, the first by a high-level official since German elections in September, was expected to be a fence-mending session. But although Secretary of State Colin L. Powell was supportive after the two men met Wednesday, the White House delivered a highly public rebuff by refusing Fischer's request for a meeting with top-level presidential aides.

And as Fischer left Thursday, administration officials said they wanted to send a message that the United States will not sit still if foreign leaders seek to build political support by turning to the kind of anti-Americanism that they believe Schroeder displayed during the campaign.

If the administration doesn't resist when "the biggest boy in Europe runs against America, there will be a snowball of anti-Americanism that will gain speed and size as it rolls down the hill," one State Department official said.

The official accused Fischer of conducting a publicity blitz during his visit here aimed at showing that Schroeder's campaign statements were based on principle and "concealing the personal nastiness of the [election] campaign." The official added that President Bush remains angry and may decline to meet with Schroeder during a NATO meeting in Prague, the Czech capital, this month.

Schroeder's successful reelection campaign got a boost from his declaration that Germany should not take part in a war against Iraq, a war he considers unnecessary. But his comments enraged the Bush administration, especially after reports emerged that Schroeder's former justice minister, Herta Daeubler-Gmelin, had told a crowd that Bush was like Hitler in trying to distract his public from economic problems with a foreign war. She subsequently denied making that statement.

In response, Bush refused to make the usual congratulatory phone call to Schroeder when he was reelected. German officials have not softened their insistence that they will play no part in a war against Iraq. Fischer, before leaving Berlin, told reporters that the trip to Washington was "no pilgrimage of repentance."

Of the 123,000 U.S. troops in the European theater, 71,400 are stationed in Germany. U.S. forces fly troops and equipment in and out of the Middle East through Germany and send troops wounded overseas to hospitals there. Many analysts believe that if an attack on Iraq does take place, the United States will ferry thousands of Army troops stationed in Germany to the region, just as it did during the Persian Gulf War more than a decade ago.

The State Department official said he doubts that, in the end, the Germans would withhold use of the bases.

While they have a tradition of declining to comment on military action, "when the time comes, they fall in line" with other nations, he said.

Several analysts said that because Schroeder campaigned against joining a U.S.-led war, Fischer couldn't say that the Germans would allow use of the bases without damaging the government's credibility.

And if Bush receives United Nations support for a campaign against Iraq, Germany would be unlikely to forbid use of the bases, they said.

If the U.N. Security Council approves such a military move, Germany will be under tremendous pressure from the U.N., NATO and the European Union to join in some collective action. Germany will become a member of the Security Council in January, which will increase pressure for it to join in U.N. action.

But if the United States does not win U.N. support for a war and instead mounts a unilateral campaign against Baghdad, there may be tremendous pressure within Germany not to grant permission to use bases, analysts said.

"If it's the U.S. against the world, the government would have a hard time allowing that," said Daniel S. Hamilton, a former State Department official who is director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. At the same time, he said he thought that unilateral action was "not a realistic option" for the United States, and therefore that the chances were small that the Germans would refuse use of the bases.

Ivo H. Daalder, a National Security Council official in the Clinton administration, said he believes Bush administration officials have gone too far in freezing out Germany.

"The time for childish games is over," said Daalder, now a Brookings Institution scholar. "If they're worried about a snowball of anti-Americanism, they better be careful they don't create one themselves."

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