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Decision Time: The Dueling Memoirs of Gerhard Schröder and George W. Bush

Entscheidungen: Mein Leben in der Politik
Gerhard Schröder (Berlin: Ullstein, 2007; Expanded Edition)
Decision Points
George W. Bush (New York: Crown, 2010)

“T he former American President is not telling the truth.” Thus begins a statement issued by former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder on November 9, 2010, the very day former President George W. Bush released his memoir, Decision Points . Schröder was referring in particular to Bush’s account of a meeting between the two men that took place in the Oval Office on January 31, 2002. According to Bush’s recollections, he used the occasion to bring up the possibility of a military intervention against the Iraq of Saddam Hussein and Schröder assured him: “What is true of Afghanistan is true of Iraq. Nations that sponsor terror must face consequences. If you make it fast and make it decisive I will be with you.” Bush concludes, “I took that as a statement of support.”

By the middle of 2002, however, Schröder had made opposition to a military intervention in Iraq the centerpiece of his campaign for re-election. Along with French President Jacques Chirac, he would go on to spearhead the international efforts to stop the war before it started. In light of these later developments, Bush accuses the former chancellor of having “violated his trust.”

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The president’s and the chancellor’s mutual recriminations made instant headlines in both the US and Germany. What most Americans will not know, however, is that the conversation in question already appeared as a key episode in Schröder’s own memoir, which came out four years earlier in 2006. Oddly enough, the two rivals’ books bear virtually the same title. While Bush’s book is Decision Points , Schröder’s memoir (which is not yet available in English) is titled Entscheidungen : “Decisions.”

Not surprisingly, the Iraq War and the controversy surrounding it play a central role in each of these books. But even before the two men come to cross swords over Iraq, the respective stories of their lives offer some striking contrasts.

 

B ush’s closeness to his father, George H. W. Bush, is legendary. In Decision Points , he describes the elder Bush as his “role model.” At the outset of the book, he notes with pride that his “father wore the uniform in World War II.” Bush senior served as a Navy pilot, and the son’s book features a photo of a young H. W. sporting his navy wings on his wedding day.

Schröder’s Decisions also features a photo of his father, Fritz, also in uniform. The angle of the young soldier’s gaze reveals the swastika on his helmet. The photo was taken in German-occupied Belgium in 1941. Three years later, in October 1944, Fritz Schröder would be killed on the Eastern front in Romania. His son Gerhard was not yet six months old.

During his time as chancellor, Schröder is known to have kept the photo directly facing him on his desk in the chancellery. Recounting a 2004 visit to his father’s grave in Romania, Schröder writes, “I knew little about him. My mother had only talked about him in a couple of conversations. And yet in that moment, as I was visiting his last resting place, I felt that he was inexplicably close to me.”

Schröder’s chancellorship was marked by two wars: the Kosovo War and the Iraq War. Americans will undoubtedly remember him most for his categorical “no” to the latter. But his unreserved “yes” to the former was arguably of greater historical significance, since it paved the way for the first foreign combat deployment of German forces since the end of the Second World War.

In Decisions , Schröder unabashedly describes his maneuvering to prevent the US and its allies from obtaining a UN Security Council resolution specifically mandating the renewed use of force against Iraq. He cites his own bitter observation from a televised address on the day that the American-led intervention was launched: “There could have been another way to disarm the dictator: the way of the United Nations.”

But in Kosovo, Schröder cared little about following the “way of the United Nations.” It is well known that the 1999 NATO bombing campaign went forward without a UN mandate. It is less well known that Schröder and his foreign minister Joschka Fischer took the lead in insisting that it did not need one.

Schröder’s accusation that Bush is “not telling the truth” in Decision Points about their meeting is somewhat odd, since his own account of it in Decisions is in fact nearly identical. The episode appears to hold a certain importance for the former chancellor, since he recounts it in his memoirs not just once, but twice.

“I made clear to the American President that the same must hold for Iraq as holds for Afghanistan,” Schröder writes, and then he continues: “inasmuch as it is a matter of acting in conformity with the U.N. Security Council resolution, according to which no country that harbors or protects or in any other way supports terrorists should fail to face consequences.”

Apart from the Chancellor’s greater verbosity, this is clearly just the affirmation that Bush attributes to him: “What is true of Afghanistan is true of Iraq. Nations that sponsor terror must face consequences.” Schröder does not, however, say that he told the president then and there that he would be “with him” in the event of a “fast and decisive” intervention. Instead, he emphasizes that his support was conditional upon finding an established connection between the Iraqi regime and terror: “Then and only then,” Schröder writes, “would the USA have us at their side.”

Given that the American State Department had long classified Iraq as a state sponsor of terror, it is hardly surprising that the president took that as a “yes.” As Bush recalls yet again in his book, “Saddam Hussein didn’t just sympathize with terrorists. He had paid the families of Palestinian suicide bombers and given sanctuary to terrorists like Abu Nidal . . . and Abu Abbas,” the hijacker of the Achille Lauro .

 

I n his first recounting of the meeting, Schröder claims that he specifically required that there be a proven link between Iraq and al-Qaeda : “In such a case, Germany would again completely fulfill its [NATO] alliance obligations at the side of the Americans. I do not know when exactly during 2002 the change in the justification for a war against the Iraq of Saddam Hussein took place—when, that is to say, the struggle against international terrorism was relegated to the background and the question of possible weapons of mass destruction in Iraq came to the foreground. But, in any case, this shift made me increasingly mistrustful.” Schröder repeated much the same argument in his statement following the release of Decision Points , adding for good measure: “As we now know, the justifications of the Bush administration for the Iraq War were based on lies.”

The problem with this account, however, is that the Bush administration did not in fact change its justification for going to war against Saddam Hussein in the run-up to the intervention. It was not a matter of terrorism or weapons of mass destruction, as Schröder suggests. Rather, it was a matter of a potential nexus between terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.

Bush lays out the point clearly and succinctly in the section of Decision Points where he discusses his meeting with Schröder. Noting that his famous allusion to an “axis of evil” in the 2002 State of the Union address had been misunderstood by the media, Bush explains: “The axis I referred to was the link between the governments that pursued WMD and the terrorists who could use those weapons.”

Bush says that the media missed the point of the remark. In that case, so too does Schröder, who in Decisions repeats the standard line, according to which Bush had been referring just to the three “rogue states” Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. Schröder suggests, furthermore, that this was the first ominous sign that the Bush administration was leaving behind the terrain of the war against terrorism in order to prepare the ground for an unrelated war against Iraq—the latter having been inspired by the “strategic recipes of the neo-conservatives,” as Schröder puts it.

But it is hard to understand how the media or, for that matter, Schröder could have “missed the point,” which could hardly have been clearer. Having alluded to the weapons programs of the three known or suspected nuclear proliferators, this is what Bush said: “States like these and their terrorist allies constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred. They could attack our allies or attempt to blackmail the United States. In any of these cases, the price of indifference would be catastrophic.” Bush delivered the 2002 State of the Union Address on January 29. His meeting with Schröder in the Oval Office took place just two days later.

The 9/11 Commission would eventually confirm that the Saddam regime did indeed have contacts with al-Qaeda. But contrary to what Schröder asserts, prior collaboration between the two did not form part of the administration’s justification for going to war.

President Bush repeated the same point that he had made in his State of the Union address in equally unmistakable terms in his speech to the German Bundestag on May 23, 2002: “The authors of terror are seeking nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons. Regimes that sponsor terror are developing these weapons and the missiles to deliver them. If these regimes and their terrorist allies were to perfect these capabilities, no inner voice of reason, no hint of conscience would prevent their use.” And he repeated it again in his speech to the UN General Assembly, one year and one day after the 9/11 attacks: “With every step the Iraqi regime takes toward gaining and deploying the most terrible weapons, our own options to confront that regime will narrow. And if an emboldened regime were to supply these weapons to terrorist allies, then the attacks of September the 11th would be a prelude to far greater horrors.”

It is striking that in the narration of his opposition to the Iraq War, which stretches over nearly one hundred pages of his memoirs, Gerhard Schröder never once mentions the actual justification put forward by the Bush administration for the war. It is especially striking since he refers to each of the three above-cited speeches by President Bush. Instead of engaging the reasons for the war, Schröder prefers to nourish conspiracy theories, accusing the Bush administration of mounting a “large-scale propaganda operation” and alluding darkly to unnamed “schemes and schemers” to which the White House is supposed to have fallen prey.

Schröder is, of course, the hero of his own narrative. Chapter Five, for instance, is called “ Mut zum Frieden ”—“The Courage to Preserve Peace.” But by separating the question of terror from the threat of nuclear proliferation, Schröder ensures that he only ever portrays himself as tilting heroically against windmills.

 

I t must be said that Bush does not always help his own cause in Decision Points . This is the case, for instance, when he asserts that “from a legal standpoint” no Security Council resolution mandating the Iraq War was necessary, since America and its NATO partners had had no such UN mandate for the Kosovo War—as if the illegality of the Kosovo War somehow made the Iraq War legal.

If no Security Council resolution was needed, then this is rather because of the already existing resolution 687, which set out the terms for the cease-fire that brought hostilities in the “first” Iraq War to a close. It prohibited Iraq from possessing chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons, but also from maintaining any facilities for manufacturing or developing such weapons. Bush mentions resolution 687, but he fails to describe the full scope of the prohibitions that it contains. He thus renders the hunt for WMD in post-invasion Iraq a much more crucial matter than it was.

Members of the administration, including the president, obviously believed that Iraq did possess stockpiles of chemical or biological weapons, and they sometimes said so. They thus allowed themselves to be embarrassingly wrong-footed on the question. But the possession of missile-ready chemical or biological weapons was clearly just a secondary matter. The principal threat consisted of the prospect of the Saddam regime developing nuclear weapons. Nobody, of course, suggested that the regime already had such weapons. The administration’s argument, as laid out in many of the president’s own speeches, was that the 9/11 attacks made it urgent to ensure that it did not obtain them.

One major gap in each of the books concerns Germany’s role as a staging ground for al-Qaeda terror operations. Schröder at least mentions in passing that the lead members of the 9/11 plot came from Hamburg. Unfortunately this reference serves only to downplay the significance of the fact by asserting that the members of the Hamburg cell acted “very cautiously” and gave the German police “not the slightest occasion” to pay attention to them. As it happens, Schröder’s own attorney general, Kay Nehm, has affirmed precisely the contrary.

Bush never mentions the German connection to the 9/11 attacks at all. In fact, there are German connections to not only the 9/11 attacks, but also to the 1998 African embassy bombings, the 2002 Djerba synagogue bombing, the 2002 Bali bombings, and the thwarted 2006 plot to bring down transatlantic airliners bound from London using liquid explosives. At least one major associate of the Hamburg cell, the al-Qaeda financier Mamoun Darkazanli, continues to live in Germany as a free man to this day. So too does the reputed al-Qaeda financier of the 2002 Bali bombings, Reda Seyam.

On the evening of September 11, 2001, President Bush famously announced that he would “make no distinction” between terrorists and “those who harbor them.” In his memoirs, he repeatedly refers to this determination as one of the crucial “decision points” of his presidency. But the president was never willing openly to confront the fact that terror masters operate not only out of the hills and grottos of Afghanistan and Pakistan, but also from modern European cities like Hamburg and Berlin. For whatever reasons, he remains unwilling to do so in Decision Points.

 

John Rosenthal writes on European politics and transatlantic relations for such publications as the Weekly Standard, Policy Review, and the Daily Caller. Translations from the German are his own.

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