WASHINGTON – President Bush is cementing relations with German Chancellor Angela Merkel ahead of a summit in Russia of democratic economic powers, and so far the friendship is faring much better than Bush's dealings with her predecessor, Iraq war critic Gerhard Schroeder.
Merkel invited Bush to visit her on her home turf on the Baltic coast of what used to be East Germany before they both head separately to St. Petersburg this weekend for a Russian-hosted summit of the Group of Eight industrial democracies.
"She kindly invited me to go to her part of the country. I always view that as a sign of generous hospitality, when somebody says come by my home area," Bush said ahead of his trip.
The president left Washington early on Wednesday with his wife at his side. He will be in Germany until Friday when he moves on to Russia for private meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin and for a summit expected to be dominated by discussions of nuclear tensions with North Korea and Iran, continued outbreaks of terrorism, sectarian violence in Iraq and energy shortages and prices.
It is Bush's first visit to Germany since Merkel, Germany's first female leader, took office in November. She has visited Bush at the White House twice, initially in January, urging him to shut down the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Relations between Bush and Merkel have warmed. Foreign-policy analysts suggest that she may be a more forceful partner in criticizing Putin's recent crackdown on individual liberties and moves to assert more state control over Russia's oil industry than was Schroeder.
"Schroeder was quite good friends with — still is quite good friends with President Putin," said Sara Mendelson, an expert on Russia and Eurasia at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International studies.
"When Merkel came in, initially, there was some sense that Merkel was going to push back much harder on Putin. There may be some nervousness about the degree to which that is going to happen, and perhaps the Bush administration wants to get on message with the Germans," Mendelson said.
Mendelson said it remains to be seen whether Merkel will criticize Putin's steps at the G-8 summit. German relations with Russia, as those of many other European nations, have declined since Russian disruptions in January of natural gas shipments to eastern and western Europe in a dispute with Ukraine.
Bush must walk a difficult line. He needs Putin's help on pressuring Iran and North Korea to restrict their nuclear programs and doesn't want to offend a summit host. But he also has signaled he wants to keep up the pressure on Putin to not take further steps away from democracy.
Bush and Merkel will also discuss next year's session of the G-8 summit, an annual gathering of the United States, Germany, Russia, Japan, Britain, France, Italy and Canada. Germany hosts the meeting next year. The host government traditionally picks the nominal agenda.
This year, Putin has picked energy security, combatting communicable diseases and improving education worldwide.
The visit to Germany's formerly communist east, where Merkel grew up, underscores how close she and Bush have become.
They may disagree on some issues, but their friendship has brought German-U.S. relations back to the personal level enjoyed by some Cold War predecessors. They have cooperated closely on trying to get Iran to end its nuclear program.
Speaking of his relationship with Schroeder earlier this week in a round-table interview with German and other foreign reporters, Bush said, "Much has been made about the differences between Chancellor Schroeder and myself, and no question, there were differences."
"But I will tell you from my perspective, and I think he would say this, is we've tried to work beyond that. There were other issues we had to deal with besides Iraq.
"Angela Merkel comes into office now at a time where we've gotten that behind us, and we're moving forward," Bush added.
Merkel was born in Hamburg in 1954, but her Protestant minister father moved the family to East Germany. She invited Bush to this week's visit to Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, which she said will give him a fuller picture of Germany and enhance cooperation even further.
Bush lands at the Rostock airport, which once played host to Soviet-built MiG fighters.
In his two-day tour, he also goes to Stralsund, a base used by the East German People's Navy, and finally he heads to Trinwillershagen, a former communist show-town.
In Trinwillershagen, part of the district where Merkel was elected to the German parliament, the two will have an informal barbecue of local wild game.