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A German View of the Iraq War - 2003-12-12

Last year Germany surprised the Bush Administration by defying its longtime ally over war with Iraq. Reflecting popular opinion, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder rejected any support of a US-led military campaign against Iraq. Analysts say the resulting strain brought German-American relations to their lowest ebb since the end of the Second World War. Now observers believe relations are on the mend. But will they ever be the same?

An overwhelming majority of Germans strongly opposed the war against Iraq. Christian Koenemann, a public television producer in the city of Leipzig, was one of them. He says without the support of the United Nations, most Germans felt that the US-led war violated international law. "I think the young people in Germany had the feeling that this is not legal for the US government to start that war because there were no weapons of mass destruction, but the American government decided to go ahead with the war. And most of the Germans, not only the youth, nearly every German learned that no -- an illegal war is wrong. And we have our own history. The Second World War was started by Germany in Poland without a reason. It was only a constructed reason by the German government in those days." When the Iraq war began, many Germans boycotted American products -- refusing to drink Coca Cola or eat at McDonald's restaurants.

Yet this kind of defiance did not come easily. Last month in an interview on the US public television show 'The News Hour With Jim Lehrer,' German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said that standing up to the United States was very difficult for Germany. "It was pretty tough for us because we will never forget. The United States liberated us from Nazism. My country didn't do it by itself. You defended us during the Cold War. You defended West Berlin and West Germany, and you supported us immediately in the unification. So it was pretty tough for us, because this is one of the cornerstones of our foreign policy: close relations to the United States."

Mr. Fischer says the two countries have shared close ties and traditions of liberty, a strong civil society and a free market economy since the end of the Second World War.

The Iraq question became a major issue in last year's national election. Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder won after campaigning hard against the war and ruling out German participation. He said Germany would 'not click its heels' and follow President Bush into a 'military adventure.'

Markus Loening is a member of parliament with the Free Democratic Party that holds a small number of seats in the German Bundestag. He believed a military threat against Iraq was necessary but thought the United States should have given the United Nations and international diplomacy more time. He says German officials made mistakes as well. "From the beginning, they said we will not support the United States under any circumstances, whether there is evidence, whether there is no evidence, whether there is no UN mandate or not -- we will not support a war in Iraq. And that or course, you cannot say. If you say the United Nations is important and if the United Nations finds evidence and they say it is important to send troops, then we should support a position like that. Germany met with Paris and met with Moscow and they organized a majority against the United States. And that is not something you do with a friend. You talk about differences, but you don't work against your friends."

Mr. Loening believes Chancellor Schroeder took advantage of the anti-war fervor in the country to win the election. But many Germans supported Mr. Schroeder for standing firm despite pressure from allies. Carmen Koehler, a 21-year-old student at Leipzig University, says it is irrelevant whether or not he did it for political reasons. "I am completely of the opinion that what Germany did in terms of the Iraq war was good. I think it was very good of Mr. Schroeder that he said no, we don't want a war. I think many young people do not take Mr. Bush so seriously. We felt from the beginning that there are no real reasons to invade Iraq and what came out afterward with British Prime Minister Tony Blair was a kind of fiction."

Weighed down by the legacy of its past, Germany has spent years keeping a low profile on the world stage. But many observers say Mr. Schroeder wants to take Germany out of the guilt-ridden post-war period and into the modern age as a confident world power willing to express its opinion. Mr. Loening of the Free Democratic Party says it is still a sensitive issue for Germany to send troops into combat. Germany as well as other European nations considers military action a last resort. "It is German history that makes us reluctant, but it is also European history. We are used to using diplomacy to the fullest extent. We have hundreds of years of experience with diplomacy in Europe. Europe is a very complicated continent and we live in peace now with all these different people and different states. It is a lesson we learned the last 1000 years. We know if we go to war with another state, they will still be there and we will need to get on with them when the war is over."

Despite its pacifist tendencies, Germany has sent combat troops into foreign conflicts -- though only recently. In the late 1990s it contributed to NATO operations in the Balkans. Today thousands of German troops are supporting US-led efforts in Afghanistan. German Foreign Minister Fischer says his government believed that al-Qaida forces in Afghanistan were the right target in the war against terrorism, though not Iraq.

Dieter Schmidt is a leader of the main opposition party in Germany, the Christian Social Democrats. He did not support Chancellor Schroeder's position on the war in Iraq and fears relations with the United States remain damaged. “It is a question of a lack of cooperation between each other. And there are representatives in both governments -- in Berlin and the US administration -- who really do not trust the other side completely. In this case 80 % is not enough, it must be 100 %. Only on that basis could we have effective cooperation.” Most Germans agree the two countries must find common ground on issues like security and the spread of democracy. Carmen Koehler of Leipzig University does not think the disagreement over Iraq will strain German-US relations in the long run. “Mr. Bush and Mr. Schroeder do not get along but in general I have nothing against Americans. It is just in terms of Mr. Bush and the temporary relationship that we don't like what America did with the Iraq war. But in the future I think the relation between Germany and America will improve again.”

Foreign Minister Fischer says despite past differences, Germany wants the United States to succeed in forging a democracy in Iraq. His country is already helping with reconstruction efforts and has also offered to train Iraqi police. Mr. Fischer is encouraging the US government to work closely with the United Nations to gain broader legitimacy in the Arab world. Top officials of both governments say their differences are behind them now.