Sunday, April 22, 2007

Dr. Range-Rover
(or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the American Ambassador)

He doesn’t speak German, some grumbled. He’s a businessman by trade, not a diplomat, others pointed out. And perhaps the most strident complaint: he’s friends with President Bush. In fact, he’s a major campaign fundraiser for his buddy. And anyone in Berlin can tell you this is bound to raise eyebrows of suspicion.

But William Robert Timken, Jr. has also earned some praise since assuming the post of American Ambassador to Germany in fall 2005, largely for his friendliness and open attitude, reports The Atlantic Review. His charm was certainly turned on for a talk he gave at the Embassy last Thursday morning when he introduced himself by saying, “Look, I wore my pin-stripe suit for you folks today,” making light of his official status as commander of America’s largest foreign mission outside of Iraq. He maintained his "aw-shucks" informal tone throughout the talk but was just as eager to spotlight his close relationship with the President and the enormity of his role as “a sort of President of the US-in-Germany.”

Timken was speaking as a favor to a group of visiting Stanford University, having received a B.A. there in 1960, as did fellow presenters and embassy staff John Bauman, Minister-Councilor for Political Affairs and Ryan Wirtz, Economic Policy and Development Officer (as did yours truly, hence my invitation to the talk.) Also present was William Czajkowski, Commercial Counselor for the US Commercial Service in Germany, who with his colleagues discussed key economic and social issues like unemployment and EU membership. Timken was quick to jump in with a comment or a quip, keeping the tone both classically capitalist—characterizing unemployed state aid recipients as “government check slaves”—and comically light—“My wife said, ‘Ok, sure, I’ll call him ‘Your Excellency’—but he’ll have to pay for it!”

Despite his charismatically commanding presence (see New York’s recent article about how “boss” personalities seduce) and affable manner, I will admit that I was initially uncomfortable with the figure Timken cuts. His emphasis on his close relationship with the President betrays the unapologetic cronyism that has landed the administration in hot water more than once. I was actually quite surprised to learn that he is from Ohio, not Texas. And Timken’s straight-talkin’ speech was peppered with what can only be called, well, Bushisms.

He referred repeatedly to the “ex-East German countries” rather than using the correct term of “states,” a glaring and embarrassing mistake, since “countries” unambiguously means “sovereign nations.” There are also, according to the ambassador, “Still a lot of Stasis walking the streets.” He presumably meant ex-employees of the Ministerium für Staatssicherheit, whose colloquial abbreviation into "Stasi" neither refers to people nor is used in the plural. He also emphasized that “people can only now see their Stasi files,” which is correct, technically, although it has been correct since 1990 as well. These seemingly little mistakes nonetheless jump out of his speech, marking it as a bit amateurish and cavalier.

Finally, some view Timken’s refusal to acknowledge anti-American sentiment with skepticism. To his claim that he hasn’t truly encountered any, they suggest he simply doesn’t know enough German to understand the media’s bombastic headlining.

Yet Timken has a right to brag. No one would envy the post he took over, a seat soured by predecessor Dan Coats’ outspoken criticism of ex-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s anti-invasion stance regarding Iraq. At a time when many lamented the “special relationship” between the two nations was irrecoverably eroded, Timken arrived in Berlin ready to make nice. Although it is unclear how much credit he alone can take for the turn-around, especially since a new coalition government headed by Angela Merkel has decided to befriend rather than rail against the Bush administration, German-American relations have improved since his appointment.

As well, Timken’s pragmatic approach to projecting a positive image of America in Germany seems to be the right one. Not only does he try to keep people smiling while speaking their language (although not literally), the classic tasks of a diplomat, he also has rightly targeted the German Muslim population as prime candidates for a bit of international healing. He has met with Arab youths in Berlin’s Wedding district to discuss their needs and encourage them to start their own businesses, at a sitting where Der Tagesspiegel reports his wife, Sue Timken, as having suggested the teens spin off their graffiti skills into marketable products. The same article also points out that the press is usually not invited to such meetings; in other words, they are not publicity stunts but the rather Ambassador’s sincere efforts to improve relations.

Timken also invited conservative Muslim cleric Abdul Basit Tariq to speak at Berlin’s recent sixth-year anniversary ceremonies for September 11th, a calculated gesture of reconciliation that strikes a strong note when compared to the native German protests against the mosque that Tariq’s supporters are building. In short, despite his posturing vis-à-vis his good pal Dubya, this man is here to get good work done.

I forgive him for his verbal slip-ups and lack of German too—that’s what aides are for, to make sure everything is translated and understandable. Sure, the Ambassador may look a little uninformed sometimes, but it doesn’t seem to hinder his understanding of where priorities lie or how to make friends. Besides, his advisors are doubtless being paid to be kept well-informed, while Timken is paid to run the show smoothly. As the New Philadelphia Times Reporter quotes him saying, “[I am] careful to utilize the resources of the embassy, meaning the talents of the people, when it comes to the nuts and bolts” of policy. In other words, my employees iron out the kinks while I manage the office.

I don’t even mind the allegation that his assignment was a “thank you” for Timken’s massive campaign fundraising; it’s water under the bridge if he is doing a good job. And the accusation that he got rich in the past off of trade tariffs that hurt his German competitors is frankly irrelevant. Moreover, I believe Timken when he claims that his business background of meeting the needs of diverse clients from around the world is ample preparation for a diplomat’s job. We have a failed businessman in the Oval Office now, and as far as I can see, he is running the United States into the ground in a similar manner. However, he seems to have chosen well for our nation’s representation in Germany.

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