Berlin political circles were buzzing last week after the publication of former U.S. president George W. Bush’s memoirs, in which he accuses Gerhard Schröder, Germany’s ex-chancellor, of breaking a promise to support the Iraq war. In the memoir, entitled Decision Points, Bush alleges Schröder told him in a Jan. 31, 2002 meeting in the Oval Office that, “If you make it fast and make it decisive, I will be with you.” Later, with German elections looming and public opinion strongly against the war, he turned tail and joined the anti-war camp. “I put a high premium on trust,” Bush goes on to write. “Once that trust was violated, it was hard to have a constructive relationship again.” Schröder went on to win the 2002 election on an anti-war platform, ushering in a brief period of frigidity in German-American relations that lasted until Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats ousted Schröder from office in 2005. But over that three-year period, the two leaders barely met, and their animosity became emblematic of a widening political gap between the U.S. and Europe.
In Decision Points, Bush attempts to paint a picture of himself as a president on a mission, at a crucial time in American history. “There is no textbook on how to steady a nation rattled by a faceless enemy,” he writes. “I relied on instincts and background. My West Texas optimism helped me project confidence.” The criticism of Schröder barely takes up a page—including the one brief mention of Schröder’s alleged reversal on Bush’s Iraq policy and another jab at his controversial appointment to the chairmanship of a huge pipeline project led by Russian gas giant Gazprom (Schröder, during his time as chancellor, was a strong proponent of Russian natural gas exports to Europe). In a 512-page tome, one has to wonder what all the fuss is about.
But Schröder’s response has been anything but lightweight. In a statement following the publication of the memoir, he accuses Bush of “not telling the truth.” Former German officials have also rallied around their ex-boss, one going as far as to accuse Bush of being a dumb hick who had no clue about what was happening in the world. “We noticed that the intellectual level of the [U.S. president] was exceedingly limited,” Uwe-Karsten Heye, Schröder’s former spokesman, euphemistically told a German news station last week. “As such, it was difficult for us to communicate with him.”
Low blow? Yes. An appropriate response to what Bush wrote? That’s a matter of perspective. What’s interesting about the verbal jousting is its devolution from intellectual critique to a playground brawl. When Schröder published his own memoirs in 2006, his censure of the U.S. president was grounded in leadership techniques rather than personal attack. “Again and again in our private talks it became clear how God-fearing this President was and how ruled he was by what he saw as a higher power,” Schröder wrote in Decisions: My Life In Politics. “The problem begins when political decisions seem to result from a conversation with God. If you legitimize political decisions in this way, then you cannot respond to criticism.”
Fair enough. But now it seems the gloves have come off. The German media have been quick to back their fellow countryman. “Is there anyone who would dare to believe anything that comes from George W. Bush?” German author, publisher, and leading political commentator Roger Willemsen told the Süddeutsche Zeitung on Nov. 11. Other publications have also attacked the veracity of the memoir. One Der Spiegel opinion piece contended that “in the face of the facts, it doesn’t hold water,” while the popular daily Bild called the book “35 dollars, 512 pages and a lot of anger.”
The response is not surprising. “Bush is still extremely unpopular in Germany,” says Annika Schmeding, a student at the Free University of Berlin. “For him to insult a German, even an unpopular former politician, doesn’t sit well with the German public.” No one in Germany believes, however, that the bickering between the two former leaders will affect U.S.-German relations. Merkel has worked hard to mend fences since she took office in 2005. The recent resurfacing of strains at the G20 summit in Seoul, where Germany criticized President Barack Obama’s economic policies, has remained, thankfully, in the realm of adults disagreeing over how to deal with common problems.
The war of words may reveal how intensely Bush and Schröder disliked each other during their respective terms in office. But ultimately, there was at that time—and continues to be to this day—more unity than disunity in U.S.-German relations. Two grown men acting like playground brats is not likely to change that.