Berlin knows that the next US president, whether John McCain or Barack Obama, is likely to ratchet up the pressure with tough questions on Germany’s military presence in Afghanistan and its lucrative business links with Iran.
Bush’s lame duck status and his intense unpopularity are expected to reduce his talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel to little more than a symbolic gesture – a repayment for Bush hosting her at his Texas ranch in November.
The visit has had such a low profile that as of Monday, not a single protest had been organised in Berlin against Bush in a city where political demonstrations have a long and colourful tradition.
All eyes are now on the US presidential race and while Germany is hoping for a fresh start in the transatlantic relationship after Bush’s passing, it understands it will face new expectations too.
“With Bush it was easier to refuse requests when it came to Iraq, Iran or Afghanistan because of his unpopularity,” a professor of North American studies at Berlin’s Free University, Andreas Etges, told AFP. “Regardless of whether it is Obama or McCain who wins, the pressure will
then be much greater.”
Etges said the demands would inevitably include asking Germany to share more of the burden in Afghanistan by sending troops to fight insurgents in the volatile south – a move strongly opposed by German voters. Currently Berlin has some 3,500 troops based in the comparatively safe north of the country serving with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force.
In a possible move to silence critics, sources said Monday that Germany was considering asking parliament to approve a new mandate for a maximum of 6,000 troops. But there was no indication this would include deployment in the south. Requests were also sure to come for Germany, as the European Union’s biggest economy and most populous country, to do more for reconstruction in Iraq, increase the pressure on Iran to suspend sensitive nuclear work and offer a hand to stop the killing in Darfur.
The influential weekly Der Spiegel said there was a fervent wish in Berlin for Obama to win in November, noting that “Obama mania has reached broad sections of the political establishment and the population.”
The leader of the Social Democrats, partners in Merkel’s grand coalition government, took the highly unusual step of endorsing Obama for the election in a speech to supporters over the weekend. And the government’s coordinator on transatlantic relations, Karsten Voigt, told Der Spiegel that “Germany is Obama country”, adding that only a few “NATO freaks” were hoping for a McCain administration.
McCain is a known quantity in Germany, and a frequent guest at the annual Munich Security Conference which brings together transatlantic movers and shakers. But Germans are wary about his hawkish stances, and his notorious temper. And Berlin expects he would take a harder line on Russia and China and push an uncompromising approach to Iran, Syria and Cuba.
Etges said that although many in Germany prefer Obama’s political style and his multilateralist rhetoric, a victory by the Illinois senator could make things more complicated for Merkel’s left-right administration.
“With Obama it would be particularly hard to say no (to unpopular requests) because the government will be under pressure to show they are cooperating with him,” he said. “Under McCain that pressure might not be quite so strong.”