WASHINGTON – U.S.-German relations sank to perhaps their lowest point in decades Monday after Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's governing coalition won national elections by opposing U.S. military action in Iraq, and a top German official compared President Bush's tactics to those of Adolf Hitler.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, speaking hours after the election victory, said the tone of Schroeder's campaign had poisoned the bilateral relationship and the U.S. defense chief shunned Germany's defense minister as NATO prepared to meet in Warsaw, Poland.
"I have no comment on the German elections outcome, but I would have to say that the way it was conducted was notably unhelpful," Rumsfeld told reporters. "And as the White House indicated, it has had the effect of poisoning the relationship."
Rumsfeld apparently was referring to comments by Condoleezza Rice, President Bush's national security adviser, in Saturday's edition of The Financial Times newspaper. She was quoted as saying the alleged comparison of Bush to Hitler by Germany's minister of justice had created a "poisoned" atmosphere.
While officials in the Bush administration talked of the quick deterioration in relations with one of the closest U.S. allies, Schroeder showed eagerness to restore the German-American link to a more normal footing.
Schroeder, moving to make amends, said Monday the justice minister who reportedly compared Bush to Hitler would not be in his new Cabinet.
Justice Minister Herta Daeubler-Gmelin, who has denied making the comparison that was quoted in a Germany newspaper, announced in a letter that she was not available for the post after receiving clear signals that the government would not have her.
Her decision was "very respectable and appropriate under the circumstances," Schroeder told a news conference. Initially, he had stood by his minister.
Schroeder also insisted that the friendship nurtured under Cold War tensions remained strong. Allies, he said, can withstand differences -- on Iraq as well as on other issues such as global warming, farm subsidies and U.S. steel tariffs.
"We have always carried those out in a friendly way without ever getting into such an excited debate," he said. "That's why I think that the basis of U.S.-German relations is so secure that the fears that bubbled during the election campaign in Germany are unfounded."
Schroeder stressed that unlike some of his aides, he never attacked Bush personally. "Disagreement on an issue must never be personalized," he said.
A senior U.S. official said the administration was displeased about Schroeder's repeated expressions of opposition to U.S. policy on Iraq and those on global warming, the death penalty and the International Criminal Court as well as U.S. restrictions on free trade.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said another contributing factor was a letter Schroeder wrote to Bush last Friday in which he denied Daeubler-Gmelin had made the remarks comparing him to Hitler, although U.S. officials believed the media accounts.
By late Monday, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher seemed inclined to lower the rhetoric in the U.S.-German contretemps, however.
"Obviously, we welcome a democratic election," Boucher said. "Voters of Germany have spoken clearly through a democratic process, and we look forward to working with the German government on issues of common interest."
He said Secretary of State Colin Powell conferred with German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer.
One issue that could be a tonic to the current relationship is Afghanistan. Germany has emerged as a leading candidate to take command of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan after Turkey's tenure ends in December.
Such a role would give the United States and Germany an opportunity to work together on an issue of a high priority in Washington.
Ivo Daalder, of the Brookings Institution, said he holds Bush primarily responsible for the downturn in relations.
"Unilateralism is coming home to roost," Daalder said. "You can only ignore your friends and allies' views for so long."
Schroeder played the Iraq card during his close election campaign against a conservative opponent. He raised questions about the legitimacy of U.S. unilateral intervention in Iraq and about the cost of Iraq's rehabilitation should the Americans oust President Saddam Hussein.
Veteran observers of U.S.-German relations said there has been no comparable deterioration since the early 1980s when the government of then-Chancellor Helmut Schmidt opposed deployment of U.S. intermediate range nuclear missiles in West Germany.
The conflict ended in 1982 with the election of a new government that supported the deployment, which began the next year.