Barack's Berlin Gamble
Posted July 28, 2008
In the wake of Senator Obama's appearance in Berlin last Thursday evening, the site for his speech, the Victory column in the Tiergarten, has become prophecy. If Senator McCain achieves what would until Thursday have seemed to be an improbable victory come fall, his opponent's decision to give a foreign policy speech to Europeans will be seen as the turning point in this season's Democratic presidential fortunes. If, on the other hand, Obama wins November's laurels, Americans should appreciate the scope of his ambition, self-confidence and tempered ruthlessness well enough by now to take seriously his extraordinary last words to Berlin: "Let us remember this history, and answer our destiny, and remake the world once again." If Obama is the next American President, and if he achieves even a fraction of what he is envisioning, the world will have an American Century, after all -- a political endeavor of love and war, diametrically opposed going forward even as it began in victory in 1945 with our bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, followed by our impulse to help and rebuild through the Marshall Plan.
In that light, it's worth revisiting the Obama speech in Berlin. Because the dominant narrative about Obama Abroad before he even left home was Rock Star Wowing Adoring Europeans, many of the photos and videos and much of the print media have given a false impression of the Berlin event. Here the professionals saw what they expected to see and shaped their coverage accordingly. However, Obama did not wow his audience in Berlin, and his speech was anything but an unqualified success. But if he does "remake the world once again"-- whatever that should ultimately mean -- July 24, 2008, will be seen as the first step, if a wobbly one, and future historians will someday be scrutinizing that evening.
In retrospect, one way to think about Obama's summer trip is that he should have quit while he was ahead -- in other words, wordlessly declared victory after visiting Afghanistan and Iraq by heading on home. For we all know what perfect karmic moments are like: it's all downhill afterwards. The rest of Obama en voyage, photo ops to the contrary, showcased the very qualities he traveled abroad to disprove: inexperience, despite arrogance, and a classic American naiveté. The character of his itinerary -- quick hops from city to city, one-hour meetings with leaders, staged photos, the laying of wreaths -- was much like that of Hillary Clinton's trips abroad when she was First Lady. In fact, a typical Clinton junket had more depth. She stayed longer in one place, for one thing. And however ceremonial a visit, she always gave it some meaning through her specific interest in the education and health of women and children.
Obama's naiveté in Berlin was thinking that because Germans are charmed by him they could be easily persuaded. In supporting this misperception, the print media's characterization of audience reaction found its apogee of fatuousness in The Guardian. "Barack Obama salutes the audience who gave his Berlin speech a euphoric reception," is the photo caption. Jonathan Freedland writes, "the Democratic nominee almost floated into view, walking to the podium on a raised, blue-carpeted runway, as if he were somehow, magically, walking on water. Even from a distance, the brilliant white of his teeth dazzled." For the British journalist, it was "campaign rally as pop festival."
But from the beginning of the event, when at 3:40 PM spectators were first admitted into the traffic circle around the Siegessaule, the atmosphere was never that of a rock concert. The truly dedicated, those who had come early and therefore secured standing room below the monument and the podium set before it, were a mostly decorous group, culturally bred good manners on display without their knowing it. It took so long for this inner sanctum before the Siegessaule to fill that the German press joked about the ratio of press to audience. Indeed I have never seen so many press at a 2008 campaign event. The audience itself gathered slowly and casually. As late as 6 PM, the German police estimated the crowd inside security (the half of the traffic circle in use for the event) at 3000. I could see that this was low (one of the many ways police everywhere seem to put a damper on enthusiasm). Tripling the police estimate (3,000 in, 30,000 outside security on the Strasse) made a waiting crowd of 100,000--which felt about right. Just as they dine, so Europeans gather -- late. By the time Senator Obama had launched his speech, after 7:15 PM, the crowd out on Strasse des 17 Juni stretched as far as the first thoroughfare before the Brandenburg Gate, about .35 mile. Eventually, according to Berliner Morgenpost, the police estimate for the crowd was 210,000.
Clearly, the last arrivals gathered to see what was happening and to be part of it, whatever it was. Closer in, people who had come to the Tiergarten to stroll and to picnic wandered over to the Strasse to take in the action. People sat and talked along the road rails, ate sausages and drank beer. During Obama's speech, even among the part of the Strasse crowd that could see him up on the big video monitors, a surprising number of people, their backs to the screens, continued to chat among themselves. The various online videos also capture a campaign event oddity that I witnessed often during the Democratic primary contests: waiting hours and then leaving shortly after the candidate appears. This is why online there are two different long shots of the Strasse: one where the crowd stretches as far as the eye can see, the other (by the time Obama mentions Zimbabwe) where the crowd ends at the jumbo screens and then picks up again in the distance towards the Brandenburg Gate. The far crowd was leaving to beat the traffic -- or because they had satisfied themselves they had been there, participating, even if they hadn't been able to see anything.
The reason I take such pains with the gathering of Obama's audience is that this dynamic would turn out to be predictive of its reaction to his remarks. This was never a rock concert. The crowd was low-key, thoughtful rather than kinetic. There was never raucousness or moments of ecstasy. Inside the security perimeter, the smaller Siegessaule group were a bit cowed, suddenly shy some of them, when Senator Obama first appeared. Here in the flesh was the man they'd followed for so long, and now stood hours to see, and he wasn't quite what they expected -- slighter in stature (the illusion of perspective, man in front of massive backdrop), quiet in tone and modest in his opening remarks. The crowd, thrown slightly off-balance, applauded, but less than strenuously. There would never be a moment, as it had for John Kennedy, when a roar of approval drowned the speech. These Germans, other Europeans and Americans Abroad had been expecting the kind of over-the-top experience they'd read about and scrutinized on YouTube videos of Obama rallies back in the States. That's what many of them had come for. Likely few of them had come to hear a rather long and rambling foreign policy speech calling on everyone to engage more with the world, to the point of sacrifice, in the coming years.
Therefore, the now iconic severely foreshortened photograph of Obama, seen from the back, looking down at a squeeze of uplifted faces and cell phone cameras is misleading, and not only because the German police had never allowed the inner area to become that packed. (There was always plenty of space to move around.) The important point is that, even as cameras clicked, mood below the Siegessaule was deflating. The Europeans in the crowd had been expecting first off from Obama an initial compliment in German. Indeed the German and other foreign press had spent the last several hours speculating exactly what Obama might contribute after Kennedy ("Lass' sie nach Berlin en kommen"), Reagan ("Ich hab noch einen Koffer in Berlin") and Clinton ("Amerika steht an ihrer Seite, jetzt und fuer immer"). Why Senator Obama chose not to speak a little German (because he is not a President following the Berlin footsteps of Kennedy, Reagan and Clinton, or because he disdained the use of the phonetic help he would've needed) is immaterial. The fact is that the Germans were expecting an acknowledgment of their language and a tribute to it. I know, because I sat among that group for over three hours before Obama appeared.
Obama also failed to give the crowd a memorable line -- one that, having waited so long to hear it, they could take away with them. Bill Clinton, speaking before the Brandenburg Gate in July 1994, had given them a line: "starting in the strong hearts and candlelit streets of Leipzig, you turned your dreams of a better life into the chisels of liberty." Ronald Reagan had challenged, "Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" And John Kennedy had electrified them with a few short paragraphs that today stand as one of the great American presidential speeches. Senator Obama's reputation for oratory is such that many Germans were expecting him to meet the bar Kennedy had set in1963. But for many reasons Obama was never going to achieve that kind of historical moment.
First of all, Obama walked down that blue-carpeted ramp to stand upon the conflict at the heart of his trip abroad. Despite his protestations that he was traveling to listen and to learn, he was also campaigning. That was the point of all the arresting photographs of him with Petraeus, Merkel and Sarkozy -- photos that may or may not, in the end, convince American voters that he is in fact presidential. Therefore, when Obama began, "I speak to you not as a candidate for President, but as a citizen -- a proud citizen of the United States, and a fellow citizen of the world," the audience was non-plussed. Of course, he was a candidate -- why else would they have come out to hear him? Wasn't that the whole idea of Berlin -- to give his fellow Americans back home a talking-to about war and climate change? To many in the press compound, the faux humility of Citizen Obama was too disingenuous. There were police helicopters hovering above. And only the day before, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung had done an extended analysis of the eagle, with its presidential symbolism, on the Obama Campaign Seal.
Furthermore, when Obama launched into a tribute to the Berlin Airlift and a mention of the NATO Alliance, his speech did not carry the resonance as the same words (freedom, partnership, unity, challenge) did from the mouths of not just the Presidents but all the American statesmen who had preceded him to Berlin after World War Two. For the second reality, at odds with Obama's rhetoric, is that the old raison d'etre for the historic German-American partnership is history. Cold War, Warsaw Pact, Russian threat, Berlin Wall -- gone. Germany and Berlin have moved on, even if Americans like Obama find current inspiration in their past. When Clinton mentioned Leipzig, Reagan the "encircled" City Hall where Kennedy spoke, and Kennedy himself the "defended island of freedom," their comments roused because they were grounded in political geography. Even though Obama ranged over wider territory, from Madrid and Amman to Bali and Chad, his discourse was untethered. I've listened to Senator Obama long enough to know that when he speaks a little too long and gives a few too many examples, he is unsure of his ground and his audience.
Not only does the symbolism of a Berlin speech no longer have its former power but also Germans themselves, now that they are "free," are no longer fervently engaged with that symbolism. Yes, they were very concerned with "the advance of freedom everywhere, beyond the wall," as Kennedy put it, when what that really meant was their own freedom. But today they don't much want to "build new bridges across the globe," as Obama put it, echoing Clinton, if that means seriously engaging in Afghanistan. This is why the applause for Obama, coming from such a large crowd, was anemic. Inside the security perimeter, the reaction to the speech was tepid, except for punctuations of enthusiasm for climate change, stopping the spread of nuclear weapons and " 'never again' in Darfur" (whatever that may mean). Germans and other Europeans don't want to "answer the call for a new dawn in the Middle East" (an Obama exhortation that fell particularly flat) or to "defeat the Taliban and al Qaeda."
Do Germans really want to rise to the challenge of a new global alliance? It didn't seem like it, and given Germany's past, it's perfectly understandable. This is a country and a culture that has moved on to another place. Someday the United States may be there, too. Now we are not. Nor are we likely to be for the long future, even though many Americans, like Ron Paul supporters and some anti-war Liberals, wish we were. Certainly, we will not see that haven as long as a President Obama engages us in remaking the world. Germans are not interested in helping us do it. Likely for this reason, every non-American I queried after the speech, as we stragglers walked from the Tiergarten to the Brandenburg Gate, heard a speech directed to those unenlightened Americans who in Election 2004 voted for George Bush instead of John Kerry. (Kerry was mentioned dozens of times. He truly was popular abroad.) Either the Europeans in the audience did not hear or chose to ignore the driving force of the speech, which was Obama's call "to seek a partnership that extends across this entire continent."
On paper, that last comment is one that der Fuhrer himself would have applauded. And certainly the most off-putting aspect of Obama's speech is the whiff of messianic grandiosity, climaxing, of course, in answering the call of destiny and remaking the world. From a different personality, these remarks would have been chilling. Some in the German press did pick up on this. In Stern, Florian Gussgen spits contempt across the page: "Mit dieser Euphorie, mit dieser Lobhudelei, mit den Vorschusslorbeeren. Schluss mit dieser Obamania. Herr Senator, warden Sie zum Menschen! Machen Sie einen Fehler. Nur einen klitzekleinen." Euphoria, adulation, premature praise, Obamania. Obama himself a blunder, hardly worth even error's stature, for he is such a teensy tiny thing. (Lobhudelei and klitzekleinen I'm definitely adding to my repertoire.)
In person, however, Obama presented differently. There was an unusual tentativeness to his delivery, at odds with his script. Undoubtedly, this demeanor was partly a result of exhaustion accrued over such a strenuous itinerary. However, he seemed to realize, from the moment the vast audience did not react with waves of thunderous applause to his opening remarks about his being a citizen of the world, that it was going to be harder than he had anticipated to rally the Old War for his new causes. But then achieving great things is always difficult. A first step is often Fehler-fraught. Obama's naiveté, his campaign's naiveté -- such an American one! -- lay in its optimistic assessment of the Berlin audience's capabilities. Furthermore, the way in which the 210,000 casually assembled and intermittently attended demonstrated the shallowness of the European attachment to Obama. Yes, they love him, in a summer romance kind of a way; but in the end, he will never be their leader.
A whirl through Berlin, Paris and London always seemed to me to be a poor itinerary for an Architect of Change, as well as proof of Obama's inexperience of Europeans. A better itinerary, which would have been symbolic in many ways, would have been Ankara, Belfast and Dublin. Turkey and the two Irelands are the bookends of the new Europe. The Irish in Ireland are an example of EU investment success and in Northern Ireland the spirit of rapprochement Obama lauds; the Turks are an emerging economic and geopolitical power whose tendentious relationship with the EU a good American president could further. More importantly perhaps, in Turkey and in Ireland Obama might have found audiences receptive to the kind of global engagement he desires, since both peoples are in the process of reshaping their national identities. Although it would seem to be counter-intuitive, it will be in such cities as Ankara and Belfast and not in the world's beautiful Berlins that Obama will find a new generation willing to shoulder "the burdens of global citizenship."
Barack Obama is nothing if not bold. Concurrently, he is running both to win and to govern. The "Fifty State Strategy" is about governing, for a President Obama will need constituents in every state badgering pusillanimous and recalcitrant legislators in Washington to move on his domestic programs. In Berlin, Obama tried another double strategy -- giving the same foreign policy speech to two very different audiences in two different places at the same time -- and overreached. We should prepare ourselves for this kind of presumption, for Obama has an intelligence that focuses best when reaching slightly beyond a sure grasp and a sense of personal destiny of which we, who will be its rooks and its pawns, have not yet even begun to take measure. Along what lines would Obama remake the world? One pattern is emerging. An Obama Presidency would seek to leave a larger American footprint abroad. The ideal will be stepping in others' shoes and in other footprints, or sometimes walking in tandem. But however the ideal translates into reality, Obama's vision of what it means to be a citizen of the world will move our foreign policy in a greater sweep, with more far-reaching consequences, than anything John McCain ever could have envisioned.