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US-German Relations Strained after Schroeder Victory

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has clung to power, after the tightest election in his country's post-war history. Analysts agree that one factor in his close victory was his refusal to support any U.S.-led attack on Iraq, which appealed to a large segment of the German electorate, and led to some harsh anti-American rhetoric. Mr. Schroeder's biggest immediate problem is to find a way to mend strained relations with Washington.

Analysts of German politics say Gerhard Schroeder eked out a victory in Sunday's elections because of three factors. He showed crisis management skills when Germany was hit with a severe flood disaster last month. He won a key debate with his conservative challenger, Edmund Stoiber. And, in an effort to come from behind in the polls, he played on fears among Germans that their country might have to go to war against Iraq.

Jeffrey Gedmin, who heads the Aspen Institute, a research center in Berlin that studies German-American relations, says Mr. Schroeder's refusal to allow German troops to participate in any U.S.-led attack on Iraq, even one backed by the United Nations, helped him win the election.

"He used it to whip up anti-American sentiment. He used it to whip up radical pacifist sentiment. That's regrettable. That's opportunistic and cynical, but, certainly, it helped some. At a minimum, it took attention away from Stoiber's important issue, the economy. So, it helped," Mr. Gedmin said.

Washington was irked by Mr. Schroeder's electioneering. One top U.S. official says the German leader sold out his allies in order to win votes. But the worst was yet to come. In the final days of the campaign, Germany's justice minister, Herta Daeubler-Gmelin, was alleged to have compared U.S. President George W. Bush to Adolf Hitler, reportedly saying that both men prepared to wage war to divert attention away from domestic problems. That was when the White House saw red.

Gary Smith, the director of the American Academy in Berlin, an institution specializing in cultural exchanges between the United States and Germany, says the chancellor has seriously underestimated how difficult it is going to be to patch up relations with the White House.

"Schroeder has painted himself into a very, very tight corner. And, I think, if the justice minister, Daeubler-Gmelin, hadn't made these deeply offensive remarks, comparing Bush's methods with Hitler's methods, I think it would have been a more reparable situation," Mr. Smith said.

German conservatives, too, jumped on Mr. Schroeder for taking relations between the two countries to a new low. They denounced the chancellor for stirring up anti-Americanism. But Mr. Schroeder, at a victory news conference Monday, suggested that German-U.S. relations are not as bad as they seem.

"I think the basis of the relationship between Germany and the United States is so secure that these anxieties that also appeared in Germany during the election campaign are without foundation. I always said that an objective difference of opinion must never become a personal matter," he said.

Mr. Schroeder insists that good friends can have different attitudes on issues without becoming enemies. And he says he will stick to his refusal to support any attack against Iraq. But one of the chancellor's aides says he is putting out feelers to Washington, and is trying to demonstrate that he is not anti-American.

Germany is widely expected to offer to send more troops to the Balkans, and is volunteering to lead the international security assistance force in Afghanistan. Justice Minister Daeubler-Gmelin, whose alleged remarks so offended the White House, has resigned from the Cabinet.

But the Aspen Institute's Jeffrey Gedmin says Mr. Schroeder has a long road to travel, if he is going to try to repair Germany's relationship with the United States. "He has his work cut out for him. He really constructed a tight little box around himself. And to do it in any elegant or quick way is going to be just about impossible. It's going to take a little time, I think," Mr. Gedmin said.

Mr. Schroeder has argued all along that his main concerns are keeping the worldwide anti-terrorist coalition together and trying to keep the Middle East from exploding. Those are the reasons, he says, he opposes any attack on Iraq.

Some German commentators suggest, however, that, as more evidence of Iraq's program to develop weapons of mass destruction is offered, Mr. Schroeder might find it convenient to change his position. After all, one of them says, Mr. Schroeder has not been a model of consistency on every issue during the past four years.