By BRIAN KNOWLTON
Published: November 3, 2009
WASHINGTON —Angela Merkel, who rose from the ruins of the Communist East to serve as chancellor of a united Germany, the most populous country in Western Europe, paid tribute to American support for her country in an address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday, and offered America some support of her own in the effort to deny today’s Iran a nuclear bomb.
The 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, to be marked next Monday in the German capital, was the occasion for her to thank America for all it did for West Germany and West Berlin and for the swift reunification of her country 11 months after the wall fell.
She noted, too, that as the daughter of a pastor and a mother who was barred by the East German state from working as a teacher, she could never “in my wildest dreams” have expected to be addressing Congress.
But she drew her most resounding applause in the packed House chamber with some blunt language on Iran. “Zero tolerance needs to be shown when there is a risk of weapons of mass destruction falling, for example, into the hands of Iran and threatening our security,” Mrs. Merkel said.
Speaking in German, translated for her audience, she added that Iran needed to understand that “a nuclear bomb in the hands of an Iranian president who denies the Holocaust, threatens Israel and denies Israel the right to exist is not acceptable.”
That remark drew a standing ovation, one of a half-dozen she received as the first German chancellor to address Congress since Konrad Adenauer, who spoke to the two chambers separately in 1957. It was Mrs. Merkel’s first visit to the United States since she won re-election in September, and her blunt language on Iran was striking.
Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow for Europe studies with the Council on Foreign Relations, noted that Germany, one of the six countries working to slow Iranian nuclear efforts, “has to some extent taken a back seat on confronting Tehran on its nuclear program.”
“I think it was notable that Merkel stepped up to the plate, making clear that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable,” Mr. Kupchan said. “It seems that in the aftermath of her re-election, she is willing to take a firmer stand.”
There had been some expectation that her re-election, giving her leadership of a more friendly center-right coalition, would give Mrs. Merkel greater latitude to support the United States on some sensitive issues. On Afghanistan, however, where President Barack Obama is still weighing his own strategy, her comments remained fairly generic. “Our objective must be a strategy, the transfer of responsibility” to Afghans, she said.
When Mrs. Merkel argued for urgent action on climate change — looking forward to the global climate conference next month in Copenhagen — the reaction in the House chamber was mixed. Some Democrats rose to their feet in support; many Republicans remained seated.
“We have no time to lose,” Mrs. Merkel said. “We need an agreement at the climate conference at Copenhagen.”
Mrs. Merkel, the prime minister of Sweden and top officials of the European Union met with Mr. Obama later on Tuesday to discuss climate change and other issues. Earlier in the day, José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, praised Mr. Obama for “changing the climate on climate negotiations,” but said that he would urge the president to do more.
Mr. Barroso acknowledged that there was little prospect for more than a nonbinding “framework agreement” in Copenhagen, but said that it would be an important starting point.
“We certainly hope that President Obama will use the great leadership authority he has in the world for this matter,” he said. “That is what we have been saying to him, very, very sincerely, because he has great capital” around the world.
While saying that Europe would do its “fair share,” he added, “I think everybody has to understand: without the United States, there will not be a deal.”
Despite the European pleas for quick action, though, a Senate environmental committee remained mired in a nasty partisan brawl over a climate bill on Tuesday.
When the Senate Environment and Public Works began work on a broad climate measure sponsored by John F. Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts and Barbara Boxer, Democrat of California, Republicans boycotted the session. They said they lacked information to gauge the bill, which would create a cap-and-trade system for limiting carbon emissions.
In noting Monday’s anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall — one reason she was invited to Washington — Mrs. Merkel mixed personal and policy observations.
She was only 3 when Mr. Adenauer addressed Congress, she said, noting that he was a man whose life spanned from the German Empire through two world wars. She, too, had known great change, from East Germany to the fall of the Wall and now a second term as Chancellor.
The fall of the Berlin Wall, and the end of European communism, had changed everything, she said. Now, she added, “Today’s generation needs to prove that it is able to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and that, in a sense, we are able to tear down walls of today.” Among other things, that meant decisive action on the climate.
Mrs. Merkel began her day with an hour-long discussion with Mr. Obama.
The president, speaking to reporters while seated next to Mrs. Merkel before the session, said he was “thrilled” by the visit and called Germany an “extraordinarily strong ally.” The pair’s body language seemed less than totally relaxed, however; neither smiled much during the brief press session.
Even so, Mr. Kupchan, who is a professor at Georgetown University, said: “I think that too much has been made of their differences, and in some ways Obama and Merkel are quite similar. They are pragmatists, not ideologues; they tend to govern to the center rather than to their base; and they are very much focused on asking what’s the problem and how do we fix it.”
John Broder and Sheryl Gay Stolberg contributed reporting from Washington