Obama at the Gate?

There’s a brouhaha brewing in Germany over Obama’s foreign-policy visit. The presidential candidate is getting ready for a big trip to Europe and the Middle East to shore up his foreign-policy resumé. But is he really just showing his naïveté?

Sen. Barack Obama's planned trip to Europe and the Middle East later this month to buttress his foreign-policy credentials is already causing a new tempest in the transatlantic relations he has vowed to mend. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a conservative Christian Democrat, is seeking to shoot down the idea of Obama delivering a major address before the Brandenburg Gate, while the socialist mayor of Berlin, Klaus Wowereit, who knows a good photo-op when he sees one, is supporting it. According to press reports, her spokesman Thomas Steg has stated that Merkel has "only limited understanding for using the Brandenburg Gate as an election campaign backdrop, as it were, and has expressed skepticism about pursuing such plans."

Good for Merkel. Obama's desire to speak before the Brandenburg Gate, as did Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, is the equivalent of his bungled appearance before a faux presidential seal on a lectern in June: foolish, misguided and arrogant. Obama may believe he is the next John F. Kennedy, but Kennedy was already president when he announced, "Ich bin ein Berliner" in 1963. Just as Americans would flinch at the sight of a foreign candidate trying to use the White House as a prop for a major address, so Germans such as chancellor Merkel are right to recoil at the notion of Obama pontificating about peace and understanding at the symbol of German unification.

Obama's misstep points to several larger questions: is Obama's trip to Europe and the Middle East, including possible stops in Iraq and Afghanistan, really going to shore up his foreign-policy credentials? Or might it dent them? And is the candidate who says he's going to restore America's foreign policy to its previous luster really up to the job? Certainly his foray abroad has the potential to upend his campaign as much as it does to boost it. The big question hovering over Obama's campaign is whether he's backtracking on his promise to pull out of Iraq: his hemming and hawing on the issue is likely to cause even more consternation in Europe than in the United States. Small wonder that Obama wants to move in and out of London as quickly as possible: rabid protesters there would be likely to show up with placards either beseeching him to adhere to his promise or denouncing him for already breaking it.

In Germany, where much of the population adores him, Obama probably won't run into as much flak, which is why it's the only place where he's apparently scheduled to hold a public meeting. Germans are scrambling to find an appropriate venue: according to the July 9 Times of London, "The German Government would dearly like Mr Obama to find another platform, perhaps the town hall in the district of Schöneberg where Kennedy expressed his solidarity with West Berlin. Almost every other location in the capital has unfortunate historical associations. For example, the Olympic Stadium-where Hitler was enraged by the success of Jesse Owens, the black American athlete, in the 1936 Games-has been ruled out."

No matter where Obama appears, how will the publicity play out in the United States, where he is furiously trying to shed the image of a radical? Germany, as a whole, has decidedly moved to the left, culturally and politically. A fierce critic of what he calls a German "republic of fear," Malte Lehming, opinion editor of the Berlin Tagesspiegel, notes that Obama is most popular with "the socialists. Obama would appear with militant demonstrators waving signs calling Bush a war criminal or demanding the closing of Guantanamo."

More substantial problems, however, exist than simple atmospherics. A trip to Israel would probably push Obama to the right on the question of settlements and a peace treaty with the Palestinians, unless Obama is prepared to face a fresh wave of criticism in the United States about his supposed antipathy to Israel. Iran would loom large as well, given Tehran's test-firing of nine missiles today. Does Obama really believe that Tehran can be sweet-talked into giving up its nuclear aspirations, or is it something that he will simply accede to, given that the efficacy of a military operation is uncertain and a catastrophic rise in oil prices is not. What's more, Afghanistan raises the thorny question of how best to stabilize the country: a question that Obama hasn't persuasively answered. In Iraq, he would be confronted with questions about a timetable for withdrawal. Finally, other issues that Obama will be closely questioned about include climate change, free trade and European troop commitments to Afghanistan.

Until now, Obama has shown no real sign that he has offered anything more than vague assurances of restoring America's reputation with its allies and dealing directly with its foes. He and Sen. John McCain couldn¹t be more different. Though Obama won the Democratic nomination in part because of his prescient objection to the Iraq war, foreign policy isn't really his bag. Domestic issues are. McCain, by contrast, is interested almost exclusively in foreign policy.

To be fair, it's in Obama's interest to be as vague as possible and the apparent shift on withdrawal from Iraq is a positive sign. If you're on the left, of course, it reeks of expediency. To me, however, it suggests something else-a pragmatist who isn't wedded to doctrinaire positions, but prepared to jettison them even before he becomes president. Still, Obama, who has been complaining about the grind of the presidential campaign, is likely to discover that his upcoming trip abroad offers little respite from his cares. How Obama deals with the obstacles he will surely encounter may prove more revealing than he would like. Obama, you might even say, is establishing something he hasn't had: a track record.


Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.