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A German Challenger's Parallel Stance

Europe: Despite his party's 'Anglo-American mentality,' Wolfgang Gerhardt offers a foreign policy outlook that is similar to government's.

September 04, 2002|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BERLIN — In the view of the man who could soon be Germany's foreign minister, the government has made a thorough mess of transatlantic relations.

To rectify ties between Europe and the United States, Wolfgang Gerhardt insists, the country needs the pro-business outlook and "Anglo-American mentality" of his opposition Free Democratic Party.

But amid U.S. threats to invade Iraq and worldwide worries about global warming, the party's point man on foreign policy shows surprisingly little daylight between his positions and those of the man he wants to supplant, the popular Joschka Fischer.

Like the left-of-center government headed by Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, Gerhardt is skeptical of armed intervention against Baghdad without United Nations Security Council approval.

And like the governing coalition of Social Democrats and Greens, Gerhardt laments the White House's refusal to abide by the pollution-busting Kyoto Protocol or impose its own program for reducing so-called greenhouse gases.

Perhaps even more miffed than the leftist incumbents, Gerhardt lambastes recent U.S. trade barriers imposed to protect domestic steel and agricultural products from the free-market forces long cherished by Washington.

With minor exceptions involving style more than substance, the Free Democrats' outlook on German-U.S. relations looks strikingly similar to the status quo.

Take, for example, the challenger's view of the German contribution to the U.S.-declared war against terrorism, to which Schroeder pledged his nation's "unlimited solidarity."

Although Berlin has dispatched more than 1,000 troops to the International Security Assistance Force patrolling the Afghan capital, Kabul, the State Department has chided Germany for its flagging commitment to the cause because of Schroeder's resistance to joining any U.S. attack on Iraq.

"The war against terrorism has more than a military side," Gerhardt, 58, said in an interview, echoing Schroeder and Fischer on the subject in noting that Germany provides more than half the development aid to Eastern Europe, Russia and other crisis regions.

"Security is enhanced when people have economic opportunities, and I say to our American colleagues that they shouldn't underestimate this aspect," he said.

As they fight to topple Schroeder's government in Sept. 22 elections, Gerhardt and his allies in the conservative Christian Democratic Union have been quick to criticize the chancellor for expressing reluctance over any German part in punishing Iraq.

But the opposition parties have been careful not to suggest that they are any more eager for a military offensive, mindful of the electorate's opposition to sending more troops abroad.

"I'm of the opinion that even a superpower like the United States should take care not to overdo it," Gerhardt said.

"We haven't achieved our objectives in Afghanistan yet. We have a very heated situation in Israel and Palestine. We have NATO and European expansion ahead of us. We're still engaged in the Balkans.

"That's why I believe the Iraq theme should be taken up with caution and accorded a wiser evaluation."

Party Has 10% Support

The Free Democrats, whose flashy election bandwagon is being driven by party chief Guido Westerwelle while Gerhardt handles the more mundane policy matters, currently garner about 10% support in polls.

Coupled with the roughly 40% saying they favor the Christian Democrats, the political allies are ahead of the incumbent coalition by as much as 10 percentage points.

Gerhardt declined to confirm whether his party has formally decided who would take on the foreign minister's portfolio in the event that the opposition wins. But his role in the campaign and his reported dedication to refreshing his faded English and French make it clear that he expects to be tapped as the top diplomat.

The FDP's push for tax relief, relaxed employment regulations and a reduction of state control over the economy had elevated the small party over the last two years of economic downturn. The party also managed to weather a scandal this spring when one of its most prominent members, Juergen Moellemann, voiced sympathy with Palestinians who commit suicide bombings to express their desperation over Israeli occupation.

But the party now appears at risk of losing momentum amid devastating flooding throughout Central Europe that has turned voters here toward environmental protection--a strength of FDP adversaries the Greens.

Even on many environmental themes, the Free Democrats' position vis-a-vis the United States is hardly less troubled than that of Schroeder or the Greens.

"I find it unfortunately insulting that the United States has categorically stated it is abandoning the Kyoto Protocol without adding what it intends to do instead," Gerhardt said, noting the United States is responsible for about 25% of the world's carbon dioxide emissions.

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