German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer met with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell yesterday, beginning a mission to patch relations badly torn by the anti-American campaign rhetoric of German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.
Still irritated by Schroeder's criticism and the comments of a cabinet minister who equated President Bush's politics to Adolf Hitler's, the White House refused to see Fischer, who ordinarily makes a stop there.
Instead, the Greens Party leader met with Powell, who has made a point of calling him an "old friend and good friend" in public, while reiterating the administration's annoyance in private, U.S. officials said.
Briefing reporters, Powell and Fischer became "Colin" and "Joschka," referring to each other by their first names as they declared that U.S.-German differences will be overcome by joint efforts on other issues. Powell said the governments will get past their disagreements "in due course."
Despite the hard frost between Bush and Schroeder, the foreign policy chiefs emphasized the issues and projects that unite the two countries. They pointed to Germany's agreement to take command of the Afghanistan peacekeeping force and the countries' cooperation in investigating the al Qaeda network.
Powell and Fischer discussed the upcoming expansion of NATO and the European Union; the United States is urging Germany to offer strong support for Turkey's bid for admission. On the subject of Iraq, Powell told European reporters before the meeting, "The president doesn't believe war is inevitable, and I will try to persuade Joschka of that." President Bush, said Powell, "would not have spent these last six weeks -- and my hair would be less gray than it is now -- if all we were looking for was an excuse for war."
Yet the two governments remain badly split on Iraq, and the division could gain importance after Jan. 1, when Germany takes a seat on the U.N. Security Council.
Schroeder said he favors a resumption of United Nations weapons inspections, but believes a U.S.-led military effort to topple Iraqi President Saddam Hussein would be a mistake, bringing wider trouble to the Middle East and the Islamic world and undermining the international coalition against terrorism.
Fischer joined Powell in calling on Hussein to honor U.N. resolutions and said Hans Blix, the U.N.'s chief weapons inspector, should be able to start inspections "immediately." He acknowledged only in passing the disagreement over the use of force.
Relations with Schroeder's government were fractured when Schroeder turned around his flagging reelection campaign with rhetorical assaults on Bush and his Iraq policy. The speechifying became intense and, one U.S. official said yesterday, "we felt his comments were personal."
A testy relationship became worse when Justice Minister Herta Daeubler-Gmelin was quoted as saying that Bush resembled Hitler in using war talk to divert attention from domestic problems. After the Sept. 22 election, Schroeder accepted Daeubler-Gmelin's resignation.
Another senior member of Schroeder's Social Democratic Party resigned after likening Bush to a Roman emperor. Ludwig Stiegler said "Bush is acting as if he's Caesar Augustus and Germany is the province of Germania."
A return to good relations will take time, according to German officials, who understand the Bush administration will be looking for evidence of reliability. They said they consider a period in purgatory to be inevitable. Bush has yet to call Schroeder to congratulate him on his election victory.
Powell and Fischer talked comfortably with reporters, but Powell ducked when asked whether he would recommend that Bush invite Schroeder to visit the White House.
The NATO gathering in Prague is only weeks away, Powell said, "and I'm sure they'll all have a chance to see each other at one point or another in the context of that summit."