Jan. 13, 2005 -- President Bush greeted Germany's new Chancellor Angela Merkel today on her first official visit to Washington. They have a lot of work to do to improve relations between the United States and Germany. Merkel has made the effort a priority, and now the United States and Germany have a new challenge to face together: Iran.
In her first comments after arriving in Washington, Merkel said that Iran "has crossed the red line" by resuming its nuclear activity, and that the United States and Europe must continue to face down Iran together. With his counterparts from Britain and France, German Foreign Minister Walter Steinmeier issued a statement yesterday after a meeting in Berlin, saying that negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program had reached "a dead end" and that the issue should be referred to the U.N. Security Council.
There are other topics on Merkel's agenda, which may not be as dramatic as the Iran issue but may be upsetting to her hosts. Before leaving for Washington, she sharply criticized the United States for the Guantanamo Bay prison camp and indirectly called for the camp to be closed.
"An institution like Guantanamo should not continue to exist long-term," she said in an interview with Der Spiegel magazine. That comment was something even her predecessor Gerhard Schroeder, who was reelected once because of his anti-Bush stance, would have thought twice about before saying. The word in Berlin was that Guantanamo would be brought up with Bush in order to discuss the differences between America and Europe in the fight against terror.
Merkel is not coming to Washington empty-handed. To improve ties with the United States, she has pledged $10 million to the Iraq Reconstruction Fund. She's also offering a dramatic increase in the number of Iraqi police officers trained by German security experts.
So what is Merkel's real goal? Is she going to criticize the Bush administration on Guantanamo and then spring a sugar-coated offer to help out in Iraq? Some analysts see this as evidence of her foreign policy savvy and as a good example of her unique approach to getting things done. Polls show her no-nonsense attitude has already earned her the respect of about 60 percent of Germans -- many more than the number that actually voted for her. Many still find her sober style too cool, but a growing number of people trust the former physicist to get Germany back on track. Her biggest single challenge will be finding jobs for 4.5 million unemployed people.
"Frau Chancellor," as some in the German media call her, is working on it.
'Frau Chancellor': Who is Angela Merkel?
She's also believed to be working on her personal appearance. And, say many people over her, she needs it. For the most part, a firm handshake and polite smile are all that foreign leaders are likely to get from the reserved pastor's daughter -- the first female leader of Europe's largest country.
During her election campaign, it became painfully obvious that she cared a lot more about substance than style. Merkel was frequently chided by German media during the last year for her unkempt public appearance. She avoided makeup and appeared in public with an unruly hairstyle -- hardly typical for a female politician.
It was then that a famous Berlin stylist eventually talked her into a new haircut, which made her look totally different than she did on her election posters. Some said it was as if she had blossomed overnight. Suddenly she was seen wearing makeup. But over the last couple of months, she has let it be known that she does not like to wear perfume and that she does not wear jewelry. Her preferred style seems to be dark two-piece suits.
Merkel is still not very interested in making fashion statements. She seems to epitomize the German saying: Dienst ist Dienst und Schnaps ist Schnaps, which mean "duty comes first."
And it seems to be working for her.