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Will Bush, Schroeder Be Nice at NATO?

The German leader's opposition to a war in Iraq led to snubs by the president. Their continuing rift could be an issue at the summit.

November 20, 2002|Edwin Chen | Times Staff Writer

PRAGUE, Czech Republic — The chief object of suspense as NATO countries gather to formally accept seven new members is whether President Bush and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder can make nice.

Looming over the North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit is a possible showdown with Baghdad -- an issue that is not expected to take center stage but nevertheless will assume a prominent role in private discussions. Whether to take military action against Iraq is just the latest weight to burden the U.S. relationship with Germany.

Despite their recent falling-out, Bush, who arrived here Tuesday, has no plans to sit down with Schroeder to try to heal the rift -- even though both men have tete-a-tetes scheduled with other foreign leaders while in the Czech Republic.

But many observers expect there will be opportunities to right U.S.-German relations, which are central to NATO's well-being at a time when the alliance must ponder a new role for itself in a radically changed world.

"I'm sure they'll see each other at NATO," Condoleezza Rice, the president's national security advisor, said recently.

Bush knows that the summit "isn't going to be a success if the centerpiece of the meeting is a continued frosty, non-communicative relationship between the United States and Germany," said James B. Steinberg, deputy national security advisor in the Clinton White House.

The Bush-Schroeder breach stems from the chancellor's reelection campaign, when he ran strongly opposed to war in Iraq. The president was further angered when one of Schroeder's ministers was quoted as comparing Bush's tactics to those of Adolf Hitler.

After Schroeder eked out a victory, Bush snubbed him by not placing the traditional congratulatory call. He also ignored a letter from Schroeder. The leaders finally had a short telephone conversation Nov. 8.

Bush's top priorities on his 11th trip abroad as president are ushering in seven new members to NATO, combating terrorism, fostering the alliance's transformation in a post-Sept. 11 world and continuing to forge "a new relationship" with Russia.

"It's all got to be done within the strategy of the true threats we face in the 21st century, which is global terrorism," Bush told Czech television. "That's the biggest threat to freedom right now."

The nations to be invited into NATO are Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia.

Most of them are behaving like shy debutantes, reluctant to talk about their impending membership for fear of jinxing the process.

"Nothing is done until it's done, until it's announced," Sorin Ducaru, the Romanian ambassador to the U.S., said, before allowing: "The decision process is very, very advanced. We hope there's no surprise in Prague."

Bush is scheduled to hold five bilateral meetings today -- with Czech President Vaclav Havel, Czech Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla, Turkish President Ahmet Necdet Sezer, French President Jacques Chirac and NATO Secretary-General George Robertson. Later, Bush is to deliver a speech laying out his vision for a Europe "whole, free and at peace."

On Thursday, he will take part in the NATO proceedings.

On Friday, Bush is to fly to St. Petersburg to meet with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin. The two were to have met over lunch during last month's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum gathering in Mexico, but Putin canceled his trip because of a hostage-taking siege at a Moscow theater.

"I'm going to Russia to make it clear to the Russians and to Vladimir Putin they have nothing to fear from NATO expansion, that the Baltics in NATO are positive for Russia," Bush told European reporters during a pre-trip interview.

Before returning home Saturday night, he is to visit Vilnius, Lithuania, and Bucharest, Romania. In Vilnius, he will meet with the presidents of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia.

Although considerable attention in Washington has been focused on a likely Bush-Schroeder encounter, the chill between them has hardly captivated the Germans, who seem far more concerned about their struggling economy.

Some analysts see hopeful signs, including that Germany will assume command of the peacekeeping force in Kabul, Afghanistan, next month. Moreover, Germany has left open the possibility of its participation in a postwar Iraq.

"If I were the [Bush] administration, I would start that discussion with the Germans in order to find a way to get them back into the game," said Ivo H. Daalder, a foreign policy senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Over the weekend, another sign emerged to suggest that Bush's anger with Schroeder could yield a payoff.

When Otto Schily, Germany's interior minister, was asked whether Berlin would send troops to the Persian Gulf if Saddam Hussein violates a recently approved U.N. Security Council disarmament resolution, he replied:

"That decision will be taken if the situation arises .... And we will then have to talk about who does what."

Schily's reply was a significant departure from Schroeder's often-stated line that German soldiers will not take part in any military intervention.

In Washington, the White House seems to be taking the long view.

"The relationship with Germany is an important one, and we'll continue to work together on our shared goals," said Scott McClellan, deputy White House press secretary.

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Times staff writer Jeffrey Fleishman in Berlin contributed to this report.

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