Think what you will of Dick Cheney, he's a helpful sort. Not just to US arms manufacturers: it is plain that Gerhard Schroder would not have won re-election as chancellor of Germany without an obliging push from George Bush's hawkish vice-president. Schroder's survival is a boost for the more relaxed, complex-free Germany he has created. It also carries a strong message for Tony Blair.
To have come home with an 11-seat working majority in the Bundestag after modern Germany's tightest election must seem to Schroder an immense stroke of fortune. His charmless conservative opponent, Edmund Stoiber, did not prove the decisive factor - though he played a part. Rather, it was the moment in the final run-up to the 22 September vote when Cheney made it clear that the US aimed to make war on Iraq whatever else transpired, and damn the inspectors. That was when things really changed for Schroder. His rejection of the US position was instinctive. Washington was making "a mistake". Even if the United Nations condoned it, Germany wasn't up for preventive war.
Before Cheney crystallised US aims, Schroder's re-election hopes were dim. Despite the chancellor's high personal popularity, the dogged Stoiber was predictably using Germany's stagnant economy and high unemployment to destroy him. There seemed no escape. Voter polls made the conservatives and their allies outright winners, comfortably ahead of Schroder's Social Democrats and their Green coalition partners. When all seemed lost, however, the chancellor had a first unexpected lift from catastrophic floods in eastern Germany, where his big-hearted relief efforts in gumboots improved his score. Then came the concise Cheney freshener on American military intent.
It is practically unheard of for matters other than the economy to settle a German election, but this time the impact of Schroder's "no" to Washington leaps from the results: his Social Democrats dead-heated the conservatives at 39 per cent, while his junior Green partners tilted the balance in his favour with an unexpectedly high 9 per cent, their best score ever. Note, for further evidence, that the charismatic Green leader, Joschka Fischer, in his guise as German foreign minister, co-authored the outright rejection of preventive war against Iraq.
Where does this leave the United States and Europe - and Tony Blair? Postwar Germany's pacifist strain has seldom if ever prevented it from being a reliable ally of the US. Germans set as much store by friendship with America as Britons do. The Bush White House is shocked at present by an outburst from Schroder's justice minister, who wildly likened Bush to Hitler at an election-eve rally (she has resigned). Understandably, the incident has poisoned US-German relations. Bush's people accuse the chancellor of jumping on the Iraq issue for cheap electoral profit. Stoiber accuses the chancellor of wilfully creating an anti-American mood. The charge is false. Schroder's prime contribution to Germany is to have rid the country of its complexes and permitted an independence of spirit that no longer dictates a slavish attitude towards the US.
The re-elected chancellor has encouraged Germans to distinguish a "just" war from another. His powers of analysis should not be ignored. He is, after all, the first postwar chancellor to have dared commit German combat troops to action, first in the Balkans then in Afghanistan - at America's and the UN's side. He is squarely on board in the fight against terrorism, ready for Germany to take over military command from the US in Kabul (this could in time soothe Washington's current fury). Altogether, 9,000 German troops are in the field as peacekeepers.
The German position on Iraq, shared a deal less forthrightly by France, looks a truer reflection of overall European sentiment than Blair's. It is not Schroder but Blair who looks stuck out on his own (unless the PM chooses to place himself with Italy's singular Silvio Berlusconi, who says he backs America right or wrong). Hence, Schroder's comeback victory prefigures a more questioning European approach towards America, in particular George Bush's America. "If we agree with the US position, we'll join in," the Germans are saying, "and if we don't, we won't." This deepens the Prime Minister's fix. A year or so back, Blair and Schroder, progressives both, grew disenchanted with each other, mostly over the now forgotten Third Way. Perhaps Dick Cheney, being a helpful sort, will yet contrive to bring them together again.