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Merkel to Steer Germany Back Toward U.S.

Times Staff Writer

New German Chancellor Angela Merkel is moving quickly to improve relations with the United States that were damaged over the Iraq war and by Berlin’s increasingly independent and sometimes erratic voice in world affairs.

Merkel has been in office less than two weeks, but she has sent strong signals to Washington that she values transatlantic ties more than her predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, did. She will not give President Bush what he wants most -- German troops in Iraq -- but Merkel is not inclined toward the Paris-Berlin-Moscow axis honed by Schroeder’s Social Democratic government.

“Let the battles of the past rest,” Merkel, a conservative, said of U.S.-German ties during her first speech to Parliament this week. “The battles are fought out. Our aim for the future is: With all our strength the new government will foster a close, truthful, open and trustful relationship within the transatlantic partnership.”

Raised in communist East Germany, Merkel appreciates the U.S. role in building democracy in this once-divided nation. But she is pragmatic and candid, quietly informing Washington that her government is agitated that CIA planes reportedly carrying terrorism suspects briefly stopped at U.S. bases in Germany. The matter is expected to be raised again Tuesday when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice meets Merkel in Berlin.

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The chancellor’s demeanor and diplomatic nuance during a trip to Washington next month for talks with President Bush will be closely watched. Analysts say Merkel cannot appear too willing to appease. Such a perception could upset her fragile coalition government, if leftist Social Democrats accuse her of reversing Germany’s adamant stance of opposing U.S. policies on Iraq and the treatment of prisoners.

“Merkel understands Bush is in huge trouble,” said Jan-Friedrich Kallmorgen, an analyst with the German Council on Foreign Relations. “But she can’t be seen as conceding. She will not send soldiers to Iraq, but she may offer to continue German training of Iraq security forces here and in the United Arab Emirates. This will give the Americans at least some relief on the Iraq front.”

Eckart von Klaeden, foreign policy spokesman for Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, said: “In the short term there will not be a great substantive change in German policy toward the U.S. But the mood and the atmosphere will change, and those are just as important to foreign policy.”

Merkel’s most pressing concerns are reducing 11% unemployment and trimming costly social programs in Europe’s largest economy. Some analysts and opposition politicians have suggested that foreign policy concerns would be overshadowed by the chancellor’s domestic agenda and efforts to hold together an often acrimonious coalition of leftists and conservatives.

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But over the last week Merkel has appeared confident jetting around the continent, traveling to Paris, London and Warsaw and meeting with NATO and European leaders in Brussels. She faced her first international crisis by refusing to give in to the demands of militants who kidnapped a German archeologist in Iraq on Monday.

“For a long time the Germans believed that nothing would happen to them if they did not deploy troops to Iraq. The kidnapping of Susanne Osthoff proves the contrary,” the newspaper Die Welt wrote. “The new government is being put to the test. Even [the terrorist] knows that a change of government has taken place in Berlin.”

A physicist known for her political pragmatism, Merkel responded swiftly to the kidnapping but did not allow it to overshadow her global views.

Her intent is to play an influential role in relations between Washington and a post-Cold War European Union that is integrating and expanding eastward. Merkel stressed these themes in her speech to Parliament, choosing to cite the U.S. and new EU member Poland without mentioning German-French relations. Such a scenario would strengthen America’s interests, especially in former Soviet bloc nations that have been more supportive of U.S. policy than have Western European capitals.

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“The Americans are hoping for a return to traditional German foreign policy in which Berlin acts as a link between the U.S. and Europe,” an editorial in Handelsblatt newspaper said. “The question arises, however, of what foreign political weight Bush can credibly bring to bear. His poll ratings are low, his reform projects on ice, and it looks like he will be forced to make a retreat from Iraq. Because he is so weakened, he needs partners like Merkel. That is a chance for Germany to gain more attention in Washington.”

A similar transatlantic role was played by Merkel’s onetime mentor, former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who presided over German unification in 1990. In such a role, Merkel will have to confront Moscow’s anti-democratic sentiments and its concerns about a growing EU. Schroeder and Russian President Vladimir V. Putin had an openly warm relationship that many German politicians complained prevented the then-chancellor from criticizing Moscow’s policies, including human rights abuses in Chechnya.

“There will be a personal relationship between Merkel and Putin, but it will be on a more subdued level,” Kallmorgen said. “She speaks Russian and she clearly understands the strategic importance of Russia to Europe. It’s key on energy and business matters. But I would assume she will be tougher on rule of law and democracy issues than Schroeder was.”

Candor also will be directed toward the Bush administration. In comments after his meeting with Rice this week, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told Parliament that Germany’s relations with the United States should be characterized this way: “We want to be good partners and, if necessary, critical and constructive partners.”

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