Obama the Sophisticate

Obama might not have solved the world’s problems, but he did thwart McCain’s attempts to label him as a foreign-policy naïf. But can Obama actually deliver what he is promising?

Click here to watch Jacob Heilbrunn and Henry Farrell  discuss Obama's European swing at bloggingheads.tv.

It's beginning to look as though Senator Barack Obama really is more popular than Senator John McCain abroad. No, Obama doesn't seem to have solved the Middle East crisis, ended the oil shortage, halted the Iraq War or fixed the rest of the problems afflicting the world during his journey. But his much-touted speech in Berlin wasn't the twilight-of-the-God for Obama. Instead, it provided him with further luster and spells the downfall of Senator John McCain's attempt to portray him as a foreign-policy naïf.

It was no accident that Obama made his only public speech in Berlin. German ambassador to the United States Klaus Scharioth played a key role in persuading the Obama campaign that Berlin would be the perfect spot. On Wednesday, Ambassador Scharioth very persuasively underscored to me the links between Berlin's battle for freedom during the cold war and the vital part played by the United States. Obama astutely weaved his own saga together with Berlin's. Indeed, the most striking part of Obama's candidacy remains his personal story, which will be almost impossible for McCain, for all his heroism in Vietnam, to overcome. In Berlin, Obama immediately led off with the story of his family, linking its struggle for freedom with the current battle for liberty around the globe. It was a clever move that allowed Obama to soar above pesky foreign-policy problems and portray his own rise as part of a potential resurgence of democracy at home and abroad.

Obama also drew on Berlin's history to downplay the military aspects of the cold war. He pointed out that the candy bombers that rescued Berlin during the 1948 blockade managed to subvert it peacefully. Had McCain delivered such a speech, it would surely have had very different notes. Obama referred only in passing to the Nazi era-"A victory over tyranny gave rise to NATO." Essentially, he airbrushed the Nazi era to focus on the warm and fuzzy feelings engendered by triumph during the cold war. McCain, by contrast, would have pounded away at the appeasement in Munich in 1938 that led to World War II in the first place-and that he believes the Obamaites would replicate were they to deal with Iran, Syria or North Korea. But McCain's dour views are out of fashion. The problem with the neocons is that they can't peddle uplift any longer-the prospect of democracy rising everywhere-but only perils. It's not a great message. Obama, by contrast, is arguing that a kinder, gentler America can draw on the traditions of the cold war-détente and negotiations-to forge a new path.

Such idealistic tones have prompted skeptics such as Josef Joffe to assert that Obama can't possibly deliver what he's promising, or that Europeans are reading far too much into his vague promises of a new Tennysonian parliament of mankind. According to Joffe, in a piece titled "Short-Term Relationship" appearring on New Republic's website today, "In Berlin, hundreds of thousands will cheer a projection rather than a flesh-and-blood Obama on Thursday. After Inauguration Day, alas, Europe and the world will not face a Dreamworks president, but the leader of a superpower. Whether McCain or Obama, the 44th president will speak more nicely than did W. in his first term. He will also pay more attention to the ‘decent opinions of mankind.' But he will still preside over the world's largest military, economic, and cultural power. This vast power differential is what Germans and Europeans don't quite fathom in their infatuation with Obama."

Not so fast. For one thing, Europe is not an economic basket-case. The euro is more powerful than the sagging dollar. It is the United States, not Europe, that is experiencing a debt crisis. And it is the United States, not Europe, that is militarily overstretched. The United States will have to reach out to Europe for more assistance in Afghanistan-it's moved from overlord to mendicant in the past eight years. It's also the case that the Bush administration, for many years, went out of its way to exacerbate tensions with Europe.

Without a doubt, indulging in excessive promises and visions is hardly an unusual trait for a presidential candidate. But as Fareed Zakaria has recently noted, Obama seems to be more of a realist than McCain. Obama has taken the lead in emphasizing the theme of partnership with the rest of the world, while McCain has gone wildly off-track by endorsing neocon fantasies of booting Russia out of the G-8-a foolish stance he has yet to repudiate and one that is viewed with disdain in Europe itself. In addition, McCain has found himself outflanked by Obama on the issue of troop reductions in Iraq, which McCain actually doesn't oppose, but sounds like he does with his refusal to endorse even a vague time-line for withdrawal. The result is that McCain has ended up to the right of Bush.

At this point, McCain's only hope-and it is a faint one-would be to launch a full-scale offensive on Obama's tax and health-care policies, which are riddled with inconsistencies and would probably further imperil a sagging economy. But with the crisp staging of his trip, Obama has so far avoided any missteps and demonstrated the executive skills that have been noticeably lacking in the McCain camp. For Obama, his trip so far has been nothing less than a real Fahrvergnuegen.


Jacob Heilbrunn is a senior editor at The National Interest.