"How a Hurricane Fueled German Politics," by Marik A. String (in Berlin) - the Christian Science Monitor, 13 Oct 2005
America had been on its best behavior. President Bush made a stop in Germany on his "listening" tour this spring. He threw his support behind European negotiations with Iran. Days before the German election Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld openly complimented German hospitality during a recent NATO ministerial in Berlin. No more controversial talk of "ending" terrorist states.
Especially after anti-American rhetoric decisively tipped the scales in the 2002 German election, these genuine efforts should have bolstered America's image in this year's elections, right?
When former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan was asked what he feared most in politics, he replied, "Events, dear boy. Events!" And so failed America's charm offensive in Germany. For behind postelection analysis of German gridlock and economic malfunctioning, there was, for instance, the event of hurricane Katrina.
One will surely ask, Katrina and German politics? Most Americans fail to grasp how deep anti-Americanism now runs in Europe and how the slow response to Katrina - and the poverty it exposed - could trigger almost fanatical anti-American sentiment in Europe.
Columnist Philipp Mausshardt of the German Tageszeitung felt "joy" that Katrina "hit the richest country in the world" and "would be even happier to know that it destroyed the homes of Bush supporters and members of the military." Andreas Renner, a German state minister (of the conservative party, typically more sympathetic to the Bush administration), claimed that "Bush should be shot" for his delayed response to Katrina victims. German Environmental Minister Jürgin Trittin suggested that Katrina was America's due retribution for not signing Kyoto.
Enter Gerhard Schröder on a bid to win reelection. Mr. Schröder was faced with the dual task of diverting attention away from his already painful economic and social reforms and justifying the still malfunctioning German economy (0.6 percent growth, 11.8 percent unemployment). Not one to shy away from emptying his anti-American quiver, Schröder apparently felt that Katrina was the perfect distraction.
In an election debate, he jabbed that Katrina's aftermath showed the dangers of a "weak state." At his farewell rally, he drove home how favorably un-American were his policies: Electing his opponents would result in "old age poverty as in America." By rough count, he mentioned America eight times that evening - a noticeable drumbeat in an election where foreign affairs were basically a nonissue.
Pictures of floating bodies and gun-toting shopkeepers in New Orleans coincided exactly with Germans' decision whether to cast their ballot for more "American" reforms. As in 2002, Schröder made America a key election issue and ensured that Germans got the message: However broken the German economy may be, at least it is not American.
His strategy seemed to have pay off - to an extent. In the two weeks before the polls opened, Schröder's support soared by nearly 10 percent. One Schröder supporter proudly justified his vote as one "against supermarket America...."
"Is This the Death of America?" by Dermot Purgavie, US correspondent - the Mirror (UK), 8 Oct 2005
This week Karen Hughes, long-time political adviser to George Bush, began her new mission as the State Department's official defender of America's image with a tour of the Middle East.
She might have been more help to her beleaguered president had she stayed at home and used her PR skills on her neighbours. At the end of a cruel and turbulent summer, nobody is more dismayed and demoralised about America than Americans.
They have watched with growing disbelief and horror as a convergence of events - dominated by the unending war in Iraq and two hurricanes - have exposed ugly and disturbing things in the undergrowth that shame and embarrass Americans and undermine their belief in the nation and its values....
Americans are the planet's biggest flag wavers. They are reared on the conceit that theirs is the world's best and most enviable country, born only the day before yesterday but a model society with freedom, opportunity and prosperity not found, they think, in older cultures.
They rejoice that "We are No.1", and in many ways they are.
But events have revealed a creeping mildew of pain and privation, graft and injustice and much incompetence lurking beneath the glow of star-spangled superiority.
Many here feel the country is breaking down and losing its moral and political authority.
"US in funk" say the headlines. "I am ashamed to be an American," say the letters to the editor. We are seeing, say the commentators, a crumbling - and humbling - of America....
Added 15 Oct 2005 - The questions German reporters asked in this early September press conference with US Ambassador William Robert Timken, Jr give some idea of what Germans were thinking in the aftermath of Katrina's passage through the Gulf Coast:
"Ambassador William R. Timken, Jr. Holds First Press Conference" - press release, US Embassy (Berlin), 6 Sept 2005
Also added 15 Oct 2005 - Katrina heightened international awareness of the extent of poverty in the US. Although the writer of this SMH op-ed on proposed changes to Australian labor laws draws on a different experience to paint a picture of America's working poor, it seems likely that her image will be all the more resonant because of recent news images of New Orleans. Even without that connection, it's quite sad to see American society being held up to Australians as an example of how not to do things.
"An Insiduous Slide to a New Class of Working Poor," by Adele Horin - the Sydney Morning Herald (Australia), 15 Oct 2005
It has been eight years since I visited Urban Ministries, a charity in South Carolina that helped the homeless. Journalists are rarely gobsmacked but I clearly remember my jaw dropping when the manager told me about her clientele. I had expected America's homeless to be like Australia's - the mentally ill, alcoholics, drug addicts and escapees from domestic violence. I imagined that, as in Australia, they would all be unemployed.
But no, the manager, Anne Burke, told me 60 to 70 per cent of them had jobs. Her homeless were, for the most part, employed. They simply did not earn enough to pay for rent and food....
In a North Carolina car parts factory, I met some of the weariest workers I have ever encountered. They were putting in a 70-hour week to clear $US450, and one man had worked three weeks straight without a day off. "I do it because the company says we have to," Ron told me. "If the supplier goes, we go."
The degradation of work conditions and pay in Australia will happen slowly, starting with entrants, and people who change jobs, and intensifying into an economic downturn. The more privileged among us, those with bargaining power, may not notice what is happening on the lowest rung. But for people at the bottom, it is clear life will become more of a struggle over the coming years - their living standards will fall further behind, and their work conditions worsen.
We may never be as bad as America. But nor will we be as good as the Australia of our imagining - fair to the underdog, protective of the weak, and roughly egalitarian.