Back in 1989, when the first President Bush watched the Berlin Wall topple, Germany's love of America was rivaled only by its passion for David Hasselhoff.
By the time George W. Bush visited Berlin 13 years later, protesters blocked his path, denouncing America's war on terror. Germany, one of our staunchest allies for 50 years, has morphed into one of our most vocal critics on everything from the war in Iraq to global warming to exports between the two countries. Improved diplomacy, it seems, would be a pressing priority.
All of which casts doubt on Bush's July nomination of William R. "Tim" Timken as the new ambassador to Germany. Timken's predecessor, former Senator Daniel Coats, drew criticism from Germans for his lack of knowledge about their country, as well as his inability to speak their language.
Germans, it appears, ain't seen nothing yet.
Timken, 66, the longtime chief of the Canton roller-bearing manufacturer that bears his family name, boasts no diplomatic experience and no ability to speak German. In fact, his only asset seems to be his bloated contributions to Bush's campaigns. Asked by numerous papers to comment on Timken's qualifications, a White House spokesman has repeatedly responded only that he's an "experienced executive."
One small problem: Some of Timken's most notable executive experiences have come at the expense of German businesses. Critics charge that Timken raked in millions of dollars from German steel companies, thanks to an unfair U.S. trade law. He's been widely scorned on home soil for his anti-union stance -- a philosophy not likely to earn the embrace of Germany's heavily unionized workforce.
"Timken stands as a model for everything that is wrong with President Bush's incompetent handling of the U.S. economy," Congressman Ted Strickland (D-Ohio) told Business Journal last year.
Timken's résumé is not without its highlights: As the bearing company's chief executive for 30 years, he spearheaded global growth with new plants throughout Europe. In 2004, the company celebrated a record $4.5 billion in sales.
President Bush made an example of Timken when he visited one of its Canton facilities in 2003. Laying out his plans for job growth, Bush said to the roomful of union laborers: "Tim told me that this is a company -- 'We are a roll-up-your-sleeves company . . . it is a can-do environment.' Which is one of the reasons I've got so much optimism about the future of our economy."
The optimism was short-lived in Canton, however. A year after Bush's visit, Timken announced plans to close three local plants and lay off 1,300 workers -- a quarter of its Ohio operations. The plans were met with allegations of union-busting; once the three Canton plants close, only 1 of Timken's remaining 28 factories will be unionized, according to union reps.
"They're hard-line business people," says Dan Sciury, president of the Canton AFL-CIO and a third-generation Timken employee. "They're tough negotiators. But you can't argue with their success."
Timken's reputation in Germany would suggest otherwise.
In 2000, President Clinton approved a new import tariff on foreign steel, in response to a growing fear that foreign manufacturers were selling it to us for less than it costs to make, which in turn places U.S. companies at a competitive disadvantage. The so-called Byrd Amendment calls for distributing the new tax money to American manufacturers who have filled out the proper paperwork. In its first year, only Timken and the Torrington company (which Timken has since bought out) pursued the free money.
In essence, Timken benefited from both the mandatory higher prices of German steel and the subsidy from the new tax. In 2004 alone, it collected $52.7 million from foreign steel manufacturers, according to a story in the German newspaper Der Spiegel.
Eleven nations filed complaints with the World Trade Organization, which ruled the subsidies unfair in 2002. President Bush has ignored the WTO's demands to repeal it. His allegiance to Timken runs deep, and not without good reason: Timken's family donated $568,239 to Bush between 2000 and 2004 -- earning him "Ranger" status, a titled reserved for top contributors. For Bush's second inaugural bash, the Timken Company kicked in an additional $250,000.
Selling ambassadorships is a time-honored tradition among presidents, but Bush is in a class by himself. This year alone, he has nominated eight $100,000-plus fund-raisers to ambassadorships; since 2000, 30 top fund-raisers have been rewarded. Our ambassador to Britain is a car dealer from California.
"If you contribute enough money to the President and his political party and express an interest in becoming an ambassador, you will get an appointment," says Steve Weiss of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit watchdog in Washington, D.C.
When Tim Timken made his first official appearance in Berlin on August 24, he opened his remarks with "Guten Morgen, meine Damen und Herren." He then switched to English, never reverting to the native tongue of his hosts.
Rainer Brüderle, head of Germany's Committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs, told Der Spiegel that Timken's nomination should prompt the U.S. to "distance itself from the policies of the Byrd Amendment." Few other German politicians have offered up comment on the new ambassador.
At this point, virtually no one is talking. Requests for an interview with Timken were declined by an embassy spokesman in Berlin. The Timken Company and Diebold, upon whose board he served for 19 years, also declined interviews, and the White House did not respond to messages. For a dignitary charged with opening the channels of communication, it seems a dubious honeymoon.
Mark Cassell, a political-science professor at Kent State, worries that Timken's appointment will only deteriorate U.S.-German relations.
"It feeds the stereotypes Germans have of Americans," he says. "That we're self-centered and care only about the United States."
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