Richard Cohen, How to Lose a Friend, The Washington
Post, Oct. 23, 2003
HAMBURG -- Oh brave and maybe foolish man that I am, I am about to
deliver a speech here in which I will explain the effect Sept. 11 had on the
United States and how that led to war in Iraq. The title of my speech is
"America the Misunderstood." If what I have learned in Germany is any
guide, I'm going to have my head handed to me.
I have given the speech once before -- in Berlin, to an audience of
academics, diplomats and others of high mind and keen wit. I was mauled -- more
by the Americans in attendance than the Germans, as it turned out. Still, it is
hard to go more than a few days here without realizing that the differences that
separated Germany from the United States over Iraq will not fade so quickly.
They have turned deeply emotional.
Take a longtime acquaintance, an expert on the United States and always
its friend. When we met, he started talking moderately enough, but soon his
voice rose and his face reddened and it was clear he was mad as hell. The war in
Iraq had changed him.
As with many Germans I spoke with, he had a handy list of grievances. He
can quote from the Book of Rumsfeld, one biting comment after another by the
defense secretary, including the now-classic remark about old and new Europe.
Another expert I spoke with quoted from the Book of Rice and the national
security adviser's alleged comment about how the United States would forgive the
Russians, ignore the Germans and punish the French. It may be better to be
ignored than punished, but in German eyes the former is insufferable. It means
"Who are these people?" a German foreign affairs expert
exclaimed in exasperation. He was not seeking an answer.
Of course, the Germans are hardly blameless. Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder
told George W. Bush that he would support U.S. policy and then went home to
discover his people were opposed. A politician in such a jam can either lead or
be led. Schroeder chose to be led, winning reelection on a platform that
pandered to anti-Americanism and, maybe, to Teutonic moon-baying. About 20
percent of all Germans -- and one in three younger than 30 -- believe that the
United States sponsored the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to provoke a war.
It does not help German-American relations that Germany has been proved
right on the case for war. When the German foreign minister, Joschka Fischer,
pointed at Donald Rumsfeld last February in Munich and told him that he was
"not convinced" that the United States had made its case, Rumsfeld
airily dismissed him. Earlier he had even placed Germany in some odd company,
with Libya and Cuba, as distinctly unhelpful countries. Not to niggle, but
Fischer had a point. Weapons of mass destruction have not been found.
Along with the decision to go to war, remarks such as Rumsfeld's have so
poisoned German-American relations that the once-mundane is now seen as ominous.
My long-time acquaintance, for instance, cited Bush's invocation of God as
deeply troubling. He likened Bush signing off his speeches with "God Bless
America" to the motto that German troops wore on their belt buckles in
World War I: "Gott mit uns!" which means "God is with us."
This conflation of religion with nationalism is something the Germans find
But while I, too, would rather skip the God stuff, the fact remains that
Bush is hardly the first president to cite the Almighty. Bill Clinton, who
remains highly popular in Germany, sought out ministers, not mental health
professionals, when he got into trouble for, as he would have it, not having sex
with Monica Lewinsky. (Only a minister could buy that explanation.) And good old
Woodrow Wilson was so clerically correct that Georges Clemenceau, the French
prime minister at the end of World War I, said that talking to him "is
something like talking to Jesus Christ."
Regardless, the indulgence that was granted other presidents is not
offered Bush. It is his manner, his rhetoric, his bristling unilateralism that
make the United States not so much an exceptional nation but a nation that
demands exceptions. For instance, the United States holds prisoners at
Guantanamo without formal charges. Guantanamo came up repeatedly in my
conversations here, notably with Interior Minister Otto Schily, the German
equivalent of the attorney general. Would that John Ashcroft shared such concern.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, German-American relations were
bound to change. The common enemy was gone. But whatever differences were going
to emerge have been exacerbated by the Bush administration's haughty and
abrasive style. Might may make right but, as America will discover when it needs
them, it does not make friends.