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Germany

Opinion: Merkel's Strategic US Criticism

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's recent criticism of Guantanamo prison camp won't hurt US-German relations. She's simply setting boundaries as a friend, says DW-WORLD's Uta Thofern.

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They'll understand each other

US President George W. Bush was wrong if he thought that Angela Merkel would be easier to deal with than Gerhard Schröder. That's become obvious since Merkel demanded that the US-run Guantanamo prison camp on the island of Cuba be shut down. But it's also clear now that she will be a reliable partner. Merkel thinks strategically, not tactically, and uses her statements to that effect.

This chancellor doesn't change foreign policy guidelines during town square rallies; she doesn't criticize allies during election campaign events. Instead, she first voices her concerns where it's appropriate: in face-to-face meetings.

Condoleezza Rice in Berlin Angela Merkel

Merkel also had clear words about alleged CIA abductions during her meeting with Rice in December

During the Berlin visit of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in December, Merkel didn't leave any doubt about the fact that she considers the rule of law a priority even in the fight against terror. That's why the surprised reaction of the German public to her Guantanamo remarks is the only astonishing thing about her statement. Bush certainly had been prepared for her words for at least four weeks.

No surprises

Merkel's public words are also nothing more than the reflection of a given consensus in Europe. But it's also true that she is the first European head of government to issue clear demands on specific issues, be it the treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo, the abduction of suspects or the establishing of secret CIA prisons.

Specific criticism rather than blanket condemnation is something even George Bush can deal with -- especially since Merkel always combines her remarks with a commitment to German-American friendship.

Angela Merkel in den USA

Merkel visited the US just prior to the war in Iraq in 2003

The previous government used criticism of US actions ahead of the war in Iraq to justify a general withdrawal of affection. Merkel takes a pragmatic approach instead. Specific criticism on the one hand and profound political support on the other are not mutually exclusive in her opinion. Quite to the contrary: Only cooperating partners are able to resolve conflicts. Merkel is not suspected of anti-Americanism and she uses the freedom to maneuver that comes with that.

A critical partner

Her critical remarks ahead of her US visit have enabled her to widen the field even further. She comes to Washington with strong backing from the public and without any risk of capsizing. Nobody -- especially Merkel -- expects the US government to fulfil even a single one of her demands. She's already getting applause just for raising the issues.

Bundeskanzlerin Angela Merkel gibt eine Erklärung zur Geiselnahme der deutschen Archäologin Susanne Osthoff im Irak im Bundeskanzleramt in Berlin

Merkel is gliding on a wave of public support at home

Bush on the other hand is facing a chancellor who will offer herself as a partner despite all the criticism. She's doing this from a strengthened position -- strongly rooted in Europe, with broad backing by her government and public support behind her.

This Angela Merkel has much a better chance of being taken seriously in Washington than her predecessor. That's crucial as Germany has long disappeared from the top of the list of US priorities and was in danger of falling further under Schröder.

Whether it is the united fight against terror, the cooperation with the (at best) semi-democratic Russia or the nuclear row with Iran -- Germany and Europe can deal with these issues much more successfully at the US's side rather than without or even in opposition to America. But Washington expects at least political or economical -- if not military -- support in Iraq from its partners. Knowing this, Merkel has set the boundaries ahead of her visit in order to prevent the price of improved US-German relations from rising too high.

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