In the world of diplomacy, words are important, and some of the words that have been used in recent weeks between the United States and Germany have been troubling. Relations between the United States and the former enemy it helped rebuild after World War II have not been this strained since the end of the war.
German domestic politics played a big role in the rift. Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who just six weeks ago was trailing in the polls by as many as 10 points in his bid for re-election, made a decision to run on a pledge that Germany would not join America in what he termed "an adventure" in Iraq.
Politically, it was apparently a good decision. Schroeder won re-election Sunday.
But his use of the word adventure was incendiary. Then Justice Minister Herta Daeubler-Gmelin dropped a semantic bomb by comparing President Bush to Adolf Hitler, suggesting that Bush was pursuing Iraq to distract from domestic problems.
The irony was that Schroeder's conservative opponent, Edmund Stoiber, tried unsuccessfully to refocus voter attention on Germany's weak economy. Regarding possible action against Iraq, Stoiber said that Germany would "support" a U.N.-approved intervention, but added that he would bar the United States from using its German bases to support a unilateral war on Iraq.
Schroeder, however, had played the anti-American card first, and it served him well.
Why did it work?
A troubling undercurrent to all this is the fact that Schroeder, a poll-driven politician of the first rank, sensed that taking an anti-American position on the Iraq issue would play. He did, and he was right.
The electorate was distracted, at least temporarily, from Germany's double-digit unemployment and zero economic growth.
Now that Schroeder has snatched victory from the jowls of defeat, what's he going to do with it?
Schroeder began almost immediately to begin trying to patch things up with Washington. He announced that Daeubler-Gmelin would not retain her job in the new administration and offered to take command of the international security force in Afghanistan, along with the Dutch.
Still, Bush administration officials showed that they were not mollified and that they were not averse to using some harsh words of their own. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice described the U.S.-German atmosphere as "poisoned" -- a word Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld repeated at a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Warsaw, Poland. Rumsfeld also excused himself from one session just before the German delegate was scheduled to speak.
Reconciliation is going to take a while.