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Schmoozing At the White House

President George W. Bush (R) shakes hands with German Chancellor Angela Merkel after a joint press availability at the White House in Washington, DC, 04 January 2007. Photo courtesy AFP.
by Stefan Nicola
UPI Germany Correspondent
Berlin (UPI) Jan 09, 2007
Last week's meeting between U.S. President George W. Bush and German Chancellor Angela Merkel -- right now Europe's most powerful politician -- was a welcome break for Bush from the criticism that keeps raining down on him for his failed Middle East strategy. It was Merkel's first foreign trip since her government took over the rotating European Union and Group of Eight presidencies. Given the weakness of French President Jacques Chirac and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Merkel, boosted by her two additional offices, is now the most important politician in Europe.

It was a sign of solidarity that Merkel left in Washington, a sign that Europe was America's closest ally, and Bush was seemingly pleased.

"I listen to Angela Merkel a lot," Bush said. "I don't know if this helps her or hurts her for me to say this, but my consultations with Angela are very productive and very important ... She has got a lot of wisdom."

Yet wisdom is just the attribute critics say Bush is lacking -- they call him stubborn for ignoring many of the tips for a strategy change in Iraq left to him by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group.

Merkel and Bush did discuss Iraq, but unlike the German opposition had called for, she did not publicly ask him to explain or justify his future Iraq strategy. Germany has opted to stay out of the conflict, and Merkel knows too well that Bush does not like to be lectured if that won't be backed up with efforts on the ground.

The closest she came to speaking clearly on the issue: "Although Germany is not militarily present in Iraq, we have every interest in seeing Iraq taking a turn for a more peaceful development, where people no longer need to be in fear for their lives."

A government source said Bush would send up to 20,000 more troops into Iraq and bind the government in Baghdad to a series of goals that it has to achieve -- the latter part of the new plan similar to a proposal by the Iraq Study Group. The public will hear all the details Wednesday, when Bush in a prime-time speech will lay out his updated strategy.

Observers say Thursday, then, is going to be a tough day for Bush that will bring some fiery criticism of the new strategy.

Last Thursday, Merkel symbolically showed Bush that Europe would stand by his side. She opted for closer EU-U.S. cooperation when it comes to policies in the greater Middle East, a region that, besides Iraq, has more ticking time bombs to offer, such as Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

For the latter, Merkel plans to revive the Quartet on the Middle East -- a diplomatic initiative comprising the EU, United States, United Nations and Russia -- to spark peace negotiations in the Middle East. Bush has called Merkel's proposal a "good idea," and his praise and expected participation lends him an air of multilateralism that he has lacked in the view of Europeans.

Merkel also pushed for closer economic ties with Washington, a clever initiative according to many observers.

"She knows that the European-U.S. relationship has to be repaired," Josef Joffe, publisher of Germany's most prominent weekly Die Zeit and an expert on trans-Atlantic affairs, told Berlin's Tagesspiegel newspaper. "A trans-Atlantic economic union that doesn't shoot for impossibilities, such as agriculture trade, but a common set of rules that gets rid of costly frictions when it comes to investments, intellectual property rights and security standards for cars."

Bush, visibly pleased by the exchange, ended the meeting with a joke.

"No back rubs," the president told Merkel with a smile, in reference to a surprise attack last July at the Group of Eight summit in St. Petersburg when he approached the chancellor from behind and put his hands on her shoulders and squeezed.

Merkel, reminded of the incident that at the time left her grimacing in horror, threw Bush one of her coy smiles before both leaders headed off for dinner.

Source: United Press International

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