Germany's Merkel Wins Over a High-Powered Crowd

Chancellor Angela Merkel was guest of honor at a Washington dinner.
Chancellor Angela Merkel was guest of honor at a Washington dinner. (Alex Grimm - Reuters)
By Nora Boustany
Wednesday, January 18, 2006

For her Washington debut as German chancellor, Angela Merkel was dazzling last week. Dressed in comfortable black pants and a crimson velvet evening jacket and necklace, she exuded energy, self-confidence and the authority of a stateswoman.

At a dinner in her honor at the residence of German Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger on Foxhall Road on Thursday evening, the former physicist from East Germany attracted quite a crowd.

Alan Greenspan , head of the Federal Reserve, sat to Merkel's right at dinner, and former secretary of state Colin L. Powell sat to her left. A legion of current and former officials chatted with her during the evening, including Powell's predecessor, Madeleine K. Albright ; former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski ; R. Nicholas Burns, the undersecretary of state for political affairs; Judith Ansley , the National Security Council's senior director of European affairs; and Robert Kimmitt , deputy secretary of the Treasury.

Among those greeting Merkel were J.D. Crouch , deputy national security adviser, and former defense secretary William S. Cohen .

Early in the evening, Ischinger introduced Merkel by quoting from a speech she gave in Berlin last November. "The greatest surprise of my life is freedom," he quoted her as saying. "When you have experienced one such pleasant surprise, you believe many things are possible. I intend to remain firm in that. Let us dare more freedom."

Later, Merkel addressed the 190 guests in German, speaking through an interpreter, and fielded questions from the high-powered crowd about Russia, Iran, the Balkans, contentious matters of trade, and the touchy issue of how open societies can preserve domestic freedoms while confronting terrorism.

"Criticism is not complete rejection," she said of European disapproval of certain U.S. anti-terrorism practices. "It is a learning process, and we have to be open," she said, urging all allies across the Atlantic to frankly discuss the best ways to fight terrorism and to adopt certain common standards in that struggle.

Merkel came alive with warm applause from the packed room. Many audience members, who had followed U.S.-German relations with angst over the past two years, emerged beaming.

The next day, she held talks at the White House for three hours, first meeting alone with President Bush , then lunching with him and first lady Laura Bush and several senior aides, and later holding broader talks with the entire German and American delegations. Merkel spoke in English, departing from earlier arrangements to speak through an interpreter, once the initial one-on-one meeting with the president was over.

According to Ischinger, who attended the Friday lunch, the conversation between Merkel and Bush focused on Iran, the outlook for Israel following the stroke of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon , Palestinian elections, Eastern Europe and Russia. But the ambassador said the two leaders touched on a range of other issues, such as the central role of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the need to keep up pressure on Syria, and even Liberia.

Merkel invited Bush to come visit her in the German countryside, far from urban crowds in her home state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, on his way to or from the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg this summer. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice , national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley and several members of Merkel's delegation attended the lunch.

The chancellor promised Bush she would call to brief him after meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Monday.

"A pledge to keep one another informed on a personal level was a promising sign," noted Ischinger, who has seen informal communication dry up between Washington and Berlin in recent years. Energy issues, Russia's relationship with Ukraine and Iran, and efforts to draw Moscow closer to the West were all big issues, Ischinger said in an interview Monday.

In Merkel's first encounter with Rice in Berlin in December, they broke the ice by chatting in Russian.

Germany's Future Ambassador

Merkel introduced President Bush to Germany's future ambassador to Washington, Klaus Schariot h , who is now state secretary of the foreign service. The gesture quashed leaks in the German press that Scharioth was too close to former foreign minister Joschka Fischer to get the job. Scharioth, 59, takes over in March from Ischinger, who will become Germany's top diplomat at the Court of St. James in London after nearly five years in Washington.

Mourning Kuwait's Emir

The Kuwaiti Embassy opened its doors Sunday to Kuwaitis who came to mourn the death of ruler Sheik Jabir Ahmed Sabah . Tearful women paid their respects at the Kuwaiti residence Sunday and Monday, while men converged on the Kuwait Cultural Office on International Drive. Ambassador Salem Sabah left for Kuwait for the official burial, but a book of condolences can be signed at the Tilden Street chancery Wednesday and Thursday.

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