Barack Obama, who found time to go on a 24-hour jaunt to Copenhagen on Oct. 2 to seek the 2016 Olympics games for Chicago, apparently cannot find the time for a 24-hour trip to Berlin on Nov. 9 for a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Well, we all have our priorities, and the president can’t be everywhere at once, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will surely represent the United States ably in Berlin.
Still, it seemed an odd decision to me — until I went back and got the speech that candidate Obama delivered on July 24, 2008, to a crowd of 200,000 in the Tiergarten in Berlin. As I reread the text, it struck me that there would be an embarrassing contrast between what Obama said in Berlin 15 months ago and many of the policies he has been pursuing in his nine months as president.
Some conservatives were irritated that Obama introduced himself at the Tiergarten as "a fellow citizen of the world." But before that, he declared himself "a proud citizen of the United States," and of his 46 paragraphs only one was devoted to an apology for America’s misdeeds ("our share of mistakes," "times when our actions around the world have not lived up to our best intentions"). Quite a contrast here with the more profuse apologies he has made abroad this year.
In addition, Obama in seven stirring paragraphs recounted America’s airlift of food and fuel to Berlin when the Soviets cut off land access in 1948. True, at one point he suggested that the Berlin Wall came down because "there is no challenge too great for a world that stands as one." But if that sounds like fuzzy, every-nation-has-the-same-dreams rhetoric, he also spoke of "the bullet holes in the buildings and the somber stones and pillars near the Brandenburg Gate," evidence of Soviet oppression.
These portions of the Tiergarten speech looking to the past could appropriately be repeated, with different phrasing, in a speech commemorating the fall of the Wall. But the portions of the Tiergarten speech looking to the future would pose some problems.
In the Tiergarten, Obama spoke of "the terrorists who threaten our security in Afghanistan" and of the need "to defeat the Taliban and al-Qaida" there. That doesn’t mesh very well with his recent reconsideration of the Afghanistan strategy he announced in March and reiterated in August, nor with the White House spin doctors’ suggestions that the Taliban and al-Qaida are not necessarily allies any more.
In the Tiergarten, Obama asserted his "resolve to work with Russia when we can, to stand up for our values when we must and to seek a partnership that extends across this whole continent." That doesn’t mesh very well with the "reset button" policy toward Russia that looks past its attacks on Georgia and Ukraine and propitiates the Putin regime with unilateral withdrawal of missile defense installations from Poland and the Czech Republic.
In the Tiergarten, Obama said the United States must "stand with Europe in sending a direct message to Iran that it must abandon its nuclear ambitions." But that message, if sent, has evidently not had the intended effect on the mullah regime, which is drawing out negotiations while presumably continuing its nuclear program apace.
"Will we stand for the human rights of the dissident in Burma, the blogger in Iran or the voter in Zimbabwe?" Obama asked in the Tiergarten. "Will we give meaning to the words ‘never again’ in Darfur?"
Well, the Obama administration has toughened up a bit on its negotiator’s recommendation we give "cookies and gold stars" to the Sudanese regime that has terrorized Darfur, and our diplomats have tried to help out in Zimbabwe. But we haven’t done much of anything for the dissident in Burma, and Obama, while truckling to the mullahs, showed stony indifference to the thousands protesting the stealing of the June 12 elections in Iran.
Last year, Obama told Berliners that we and they are "heirs to a struggle for freedom." This year, his administration has been busy trying to appease dictatorial and authoritarian regimes. So maybe he was wise to skip a return appearance in Berlin. Let Hillary Clinton gloss over the embarrassing contrast between his rhetoric then and his policies now.