By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, June 22, 2009
BERLIN -- President Obama may be the most popular politician in Germany. But that hasn't won him any favors from the German government.
Since he moved into the White House, Obama has encountered a string of rebukes and lectures from Chancellor Angela Merkel and German lawmakers, who have irritated Washington by refusing to provide more help in fighting the Afghan war or closing the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, among other disputes. The diplomatic tensions stand in contrast to the rapturous greeting candidate Obama received in Berlin last July, when an estimated 200,000 people jammed the streets.
The sorest point has been over how to respond to the economic crisis, with Merkel and some of her ministers warning darkly that U.S. fiscal and monetary policies have been reckless and will trigger a global wave of inflation. In turn, Obama's advisers have complained that Germany -- the world's leading exporter and Europe's largest economy -- has done the least of any industrialized nation to fight the recession.
Merkel will meet with Obama in Washington for the first time Friday -- three months after she turned down a previous invitation to visit, according to German reports. The White House said the leaders will discuss "a broad agenda of global issues of mutual concern."
Although opinion polls show that Obama remains a huge favorite with the German public, lawmakers have been slower to warm to him, said Werner Hoyer, parliamentary leader on foreign policy issues for the Free Democrats, a minority party with close ties to Washington.
"The Obama phenomenon has been underestimated here for a very long time. Most people in the media and in Parliament all predicted he'd lose to Hillary," Hoyer said, referring to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Some in Merkel's party, the Christian Democratic Union, "still can't believe Bush is out. They bet on the neoconservatives for so long that they don't know how to react," he added.
Merkel built a close relationship with Bush and was credited with improving ties between Berlin and Washington after her election in 2005. Her predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, was persona non grata in the Bush White House for his vocal opposition to the war in Iraq and his chumminess with Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
It has taken longer for Merkel and Obama to develop a rapport, analysts said, even though both are known for their analytical personalities and come from academic backgrounds.
Obama has made two trips to Germany to sit down with Merkel and has been invited back in November for the 20th anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall. During Obama's visit to Dresden on June 5, both leaders played down reports of a transatlantic rift, even as Merkel's aides sniped anonymously in the news media about the difficulties of scheduling the trip with the White House.
"The truth of the matter is, is that the relationship not only between our two countries but our two governments is outstanding," Obama said at a news conference in Dresden. Added Merkel: "It's fun to work together with the American president."
Some analysts said it was unrealistic to expect the countries to agree on everything after Obama's election. Each has its own national interests, said Josef Joffe, editor of the newspaper Die Zeit.
"Has there ever been an American president since the harshest days of the Cold War who has gotten the Germans to follow his lead?" Joffe, a prominent German commentator, said in a phone interview. "It doesn't matter who is in the White House and who is in the chancellery in Berlin. Interests beat friendships every time."
Merkel has a reputation as a colorless politician who eschews sound bites and goes out of her way not to antagonize anyone. But she has aimed several well-scripted zingers at Washington in recent months, expressing displeasure with U.S. economic policy.
On June 2, in a speech in Berlin, Merkel ripped the U.S. Federal Reserve for its loose monetary policy, saying she viewed it with "a great deal of skepticism." The comments broke with a long-standing tradition among German politicians not to criticize the independence of central banks.
A week earlier, Merkel criticized the U.S. Treasury as being unhelpful during negotiations over the fate of Opel, a European division of General Motors that employs 25,000 Germans. "There is room for improvement on the American side," she told the magazine Der Spiegel.
More significantly, Merkel and other German leaders have assigned virtually all blame for the global recession to Wall Street and Washington, arguing that U.S. regulators were not only asleep at the switch but also had ignored German warnings that banks and equity funds were running out of control. Less has been said about problems of equal magnitude with German banks, which have more toxic assets on their books than their American counterparts, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Thomas Risse, a political science professor at the Free University of Berlin, said the German political calendar was playing a role and predicted things would smooth out after national elections in September.
"She's in a tough election campaign," he said of Merkel. "I don't sense any ill feelings or something like that. But again, the transatlantic relationship is not conflict free, and never has been."
Some of the U.S.-German conflicts date to the Bush years, such as the running dispute over whether Berlin is doing enough to aid the NATO-led military operation in Afghanistan. Germany has 3,500 troops in the NATO coalition. But they are restricted from combat and confined to relatively peaceful northern provinces.
Last week, the German government agreed to send four AWACS surveillance planes and 300 more military personnel to Afghanistan, but only until December. U.S. and NATO officials say they have largely given up expectations that Germany will contribute anything else to the war effort, which is highly unpopular among voters.
The Obama administration had higher hopes that Germany would help it resettle inmates from Guantanamo, especially since Merkel has called for the closure of the prison for years. But her government has rejected two requests from the State Department to give asylum to about a dozen prisoners.
The Sueddeutsche Zeitung, a leading German newspaper, said Merkel risks doing lasting damage to U.S.-German relations if she does not change her mind about accepting Guantanamo prisoners.
"Next week she will appear at the White House -- and then, at the latest, she must profess how much her (and the German) friendship is really worth," the paper said in an editorial Wednesday.