German Chancellor Angela Merkel was asked to reminisce about her fondest moments with President Barack Obama during the seven years of his presidency. Her short, remarkably unsentimental answer explains why she has become Obama's closest overseas ally and the President's political and ideological soulmate on critical issues such as Syria, terrorism and containing Russian aggression in Ukraine.
More than most American presidents, Obama disdains what he regards as needy, showboating allies. Merkel is most definitely neither.
The Chancellor grimaced at the question from the German reporter. "I am not in a position to take stock now," she replied curtly. There was too much important work to do.
Obama, who is incapable of speaking in anything other than full and frequently florid paragraphs, smiled broadly and used the moment to pay Merkel a compliment. "She has a really good sense of humour that she doesn't show all the time at press conferences. She's a little more - she's much more serious in front of all of you."
An amused smile flashed across Merkel's face, prompting a storm of clicking camera shutters from the photographers in the room.
Obama was officially in Germany for the Hanover Messe, a major trade and technology show promoting American companies and products. The real reason he went to Germany was simpler: Merkel asked him. These are tough times for Europe, struggling with terrorism, an anaemic economy and an unprecedented migrant crisis. They are also tough for the longtime Chancellor, who is under unprecedented pressure, due in part to her strong advocacy for migrants pouring into Europe at levels not seen since World War II.
"Perhaps because she once lived behind a wall herself, Angela understands the aspirations of those who've been denied their freedom and who seek a better life," Obama said of Merkel, who grew up in the communist east.
In an attempt to relieve some of the pressure, Merkel and Turkish leaders brokered a deal late last month that will send virtually all of the migrants who attempt to enter Europe via the Aegean Sea - including Syrians - back to Turkey. In exchange, Turkey gets US$6.6 billion and the promise of jump-started talks on its EU membership.
She has a really good sense of humour that she doesn't show all the time at press conferences.
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The challenges facing Merkel were front and centre throughout the news conference, especially when the leaders discussed the plight of the refugees and the need for a safe zone inside Syria where the displaced would be protected from Isis and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces.
"We all care deeply about the tragic humanitarian crisis inside of Syria. I live with this every day," Obama said. But he opposes a safe zone administered by the United States that might lead to fewer migrants, because securing such an area would require thousands of troops and come with too many difficult questions. "How do you do it? And who is going to put a bunch of ground troops inside of Syria?" Obama asked. "How do you let people in? And who do you let in and who do you let out? And how is it monitored?"
Merkel didn't disagree. Instead, she said Western allies had to figure out a way through the peace negotiations with Russia, Iran and Assad's regime to help protect Syria's most vulnerable citizens. "We have to send a message to them," she said of the thousands of desperate Syrians trying to flee the country for Europe.
The two also talked about their mutual support for a far-reaching trade deal between the United States and Europe - the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership - that has drawn fierce opposition from some Germans. The day before Obama arrived, thousands of people gathered in Hanover to protest against the deal. Obama said he hoped some of the resistance to the deal in the United States might start to ease "after the primary season is over."
Merkel offered her endorsement of the pact in typical no-nonsense fashion: "It is important for the German economy. It is important for the whole European economy. We ought to have an interest in speeding negotiations up."
She was asked about the prospect of working with a Republican presidential candidate - front-runner Donald Trump - who has called her welcoming refugee policies "insane". Merkel arched an eyebrow and cocked her head, a gesture far more revealing than her answer. Cameras clicked furiously. "First, I concentrate on the task ahead for 2016. I'm quite busy with that, thank you very much," she replied.
A reporter wondered whether she felt some vindication for keeping Germany out of the 2011 Nato-led effort in Libya that toppled Muammar Gaddafi, a mission Obama now acknowledges was poorly planned. "Let's look ahead. Let's look at what we want to achieve," she said of the deeply tribal country. "It is not easy. Not at all."
Obama was asked whether he had any regrets that he could not continue in office like Merkel, who has served as Chancellor since 2005 and does not face a term limit. Obama replied that a country as big and diverse as America needs "fresh legs," but he is glad Merkel is sticking around. "The world benefits from her steady presence," he said.
- Washington Post, Bloomberg