Richard Cohen, How to Lose a Friend, The Washington Post, Oct. 23, 2003

HAMBURG -- Oh brave and maybe foolish man that I am, I am about to deliver a speech here in which I will explain the effect Sept. 11 had on the United States and how that led to war in Iraq. The title of my speech is "America the Misunderstood." If what I have learned in Germany is any guide, I'm going to have my head handed to me.

I have given the speech once before -- in Berlin, to an audience of academics, diplomats and others of high mind and keen wit. I was mauled -- more by the Americans in attendance than the Germans, as it turned out. Still, it is hard to go more than a few days here without realizing that the differences that separated Germany from the United States over Iraq will not fade so quickly. They have turned deeply emotional.

Take a longtime acquaintance, an expert on the United States and always its friend. When we met, he started talking moderately enough, but soon his voice rose and his face reddened and it was clear he was mad as hell. The war in Iraq had changed him.

As with many Germans I spoke with, he had a handy list of grievances. He can quote from the Book of Rumsfeld, one biting comment after another by the defense secretary, including the now-classic remark about old and new Europe.

Another expert I spoke with quoted from the Book of Rice and the national security adviser's alleged comment about how the United States would forgive the Russians, ignore the Germans and punish the French. It may be better to be ignored than punished, but in German eyes the former is insufferable. It means being dissed.

"Who are these people?" a German foreign affairs expert exclaimed in exasperation. He was not seeking an answer.

Of course, the Germans are hardly blameless. Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder told George W. Bush that he would support U.S. policy and then went home to discover his people were opposed. A politician in such a jam can either lead or be led. Schroeder chose to be led, winning reelection on a platform that pandered to anti-Americanism and, maybe, to Teutonic moon-baying. About 20 percent of all Germans -- and one in three younger than 30 -- believe that the United States sponsored the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to provoke a war.

It does not help German-American relations that Germany has been proved right on the case for war. When the German foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, pointed at Donald Rumsfeld last February in Munich and told him that he was "not convinced" that the United States had made its case, Rumsfeld airily dismissed him. Earlier he had even placed Germany in some odd company, with Libya and Cuba, as distinctly unhelpful countries. Not to niggle, but Fischer had a point. Weapons of mass destruction have not been found.

Along with the decision to go to war, remarks such as Rumsfeld's have so poisoned German-American relations that the once-mundane is now seen as ominous. My long-time acquaintance, for instance, cited Bush's invocation of God as deeply troubling. He likened Bush signing off his speeches with "God Bless America" to the motto that German troops wore on their belt buckles in World War I: "Gott mit uns!" which means "God is with us." This conflation of religion with nationalism is something the Germans find deeply unsettling.

But while I, too, would rather skip the God stuff, the fact remains that Bush is hardly the first president to cite the Almighty. Bill Clinton, who remains highly popular in Germany, sought out ministers, not mental health professionals, when he got into trouble for, as he would have it, not having sex with Monica Lewinsky. (Only a minister could buy that explanation.) And good old Woodrow Wilson was so clerically correct that Georges Clemenceau, the French prime minister at the end of World War I, said that talking to him "is something like talking to Jesus Christ."

Regardless, the indulgence that was granted other presidents is not offered Bush. It is his manner, his rhetoric, his bristling unilateralism that make the United States not so much an exceptional nation but a nation that demands exceptions. For instance, the United States holds prisoners at Guantanamo without formal charges. Guantanamo came up repeatedly in my conversations here, notably with Interior Minister Otto Schily, the German equivalent of the attorney general. Would that John Ashcroft shared such concern.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, German-American relations were bound to change. The common enemy was gone. But whatever differences were going to emerge have been exacerbated by the Bush administration's haughty and abrasive style. Might may make right but, as America will discover when it needs them, it does not make friends.