Sunday, July 27, 2008

Obama in Berlin: American Confession

Obama's Berlin speech has been characterized as light on substance and derided as Utopian treacle. Nonsense.

On a practical level, the speech reformulated in sweeping historical and philosphical terms an appeal that Defense Secretary Robert Gates made directly to the European public this past February. Asking Europeans not to lump the war in Afghanistan together with the war in Iraq as an American misadventure, Gates said, according to the AP (sorry - link expired):
I think they combine the two. Many of them I think have a problem with our involvement in Iraq and project that to Afghanistan and don't understand the very different — for them — very different kind of threat' posed by al-Qaida in Afghanistan, as opposed to the militant group in Iraq that goes by the same name and is thought to be led by foreign terrorists linked to al-Qaida.

Compare Obama in Berlin:
This is the moment when we must defeat terror and dry up the well of extremism that supports it. This threat is real and we cannot shrink from our responsibility to combat it. If we could create NATO to face down the Soviet Union, we can join in a new and global partnership to dismantle the networks that have struck in Madrid and Amman; in London and Bali; in Washington and New York. If we could win a battle of ideas against the communists, we can stand with the vast majority of Muslims who reject the extremism that leads to hate instead of hope.

This is the moment when we must renew our resolve to rout the terrorists who threaten our security in Afghanistan, and the traffickers who sell drugs on your streets. No one welcomes war. I recognize the enormous difficulties in Afghanistan. But my country and yours have a stake in seeing that NATO's first mission beyond Europe's borders is a success. For the people of Afghanistan, and for our shared security, the work must be done. America cannot do this alone. The Afghan people need our troops and your troops; our support and your support to defeat the Taliban and al Qaeda, to develop their economy, and to help them rebuild their nation. We have too much at stake to turn back now.
Beyond that appeal, it's true that the speech was more about shared goals than contestable policies. But why would a prospective American president give a detailed policy address to 200,000 Berliners? Obama's speech had a different kind of substance. It was a direct appeal to revitalize the strained Atlantic alliance. It was a confession (and assertion) of sins on both sides of a rift. It was a bulletin that a chastened United States is ready again to lead, on humbler terms, "the greatest alliance ever formed to defend our common security." And it was an eloquent restatement of common values - values that Obama characterizes as shared with Europe, and capable of being spread by force of reason and example worldwide.

Echoing Lincoln, Obama used a moment of past heroism, the Berlin airlift, to 'rededicate' the alliance to living up to its own often-violated ideals:
[Pilots of the airlift] won hearts and minds; love and loyalty and trust - not just from the people in this city, but from all those who heard the story of what they did here.

Now the world will watch and remember what we do here - what we do with this moment. Will we extend our hand to the people in the forgotten corners of this world who yearn for lives marked by dignity and opportunity; by security and justice? Will we lift the child in Bangladesh from poverty, shelter the refugee in Chad, and banish the scourge of AIDS in our time?

Will we stand for the human rights of the dissident in Burma, the blogger in Iran, or the voter in Zimbabwe? Will we give meaning to the words "never again" in Darfur?

Will we acknowledge that there is no more powerful example than the one each of our nations projects to the world? Will we reject torture and stand for the rule of law? Will we welcome immigrants from different lands, and shun discrimination against those who don't look like us or worship like we do, and keep the promise of equality and opportunity for all of our people?

Also like Lincoln, Obama predicates his faith in American ideals -- and an appeal to their universality -- on acknowledgement of our failure to live up to them. It's the confession of failure that makes the assertion of universality palatable:

I know my country has not perfected itself. At times, we've struggled to keep the promise of liberty and equality for all of our people. We've made our share of mistakes, and there are times when our actions around the world have not lived up to our best intentions.

But I also know how much I love America. I know that for more than two centuries, we have strived - at great cost and great sacrifice - to form a more perfect union; to seek, with other nations, a more hopeful world. Our allegiance has never been to any particular tribe or kingdom - indeed, every language is spoken in our country; every culture has left its imprint on ours; every point of view is expressed in our public squares. What has always united us - what has always driven our people; what drew my father to America's shores - is a set of ideals that speak to aspirations shared by all people: that we can live free from fear and free from want; that we can speak our minds and assemble with whomever we choose and worship as we please.

These are the aspirations that joined the fates of all nations in this city. These aspirations are bigger than anything that drives us apart. It is because of these aspirations that the airlift began. It is because of these aspirations that all free people - everywhere - became citizens of Berlin. It is in pursuit of these aspirations that a new generation - our generation - must make our mark on the world.

As is usually the case with Obama, this speech was partly about timing (one of its refrains was 'this is the moment'). Europeans prefer Obama over McCain by margins exceding 3-to-1. Simply by electing Obama, Americans will take a long step toward restoring good will in Europe. It was therefore Obama's task at this moment to remind Europeans of our common values and common interests, to confess to American missteps, and to appeal for concerted action on multiple fronts, with Nato's task at hand in Afghanistan front and center. All of this he did.

Related posts:
Obama and the vision thing
We've been here before: How Obama frames U.S. history
Audacity of Respect: What Obama Owes to Reagan II
Obama gets down to tax brass
Obama brings it back to earth in Virginia
Feb. 5: Hillary's Speech was Better than Obama's
Truth and Transformation

1 comment:

  1. As usual, you hit the mark. I, along with so many others, were indeed inspired by his eloquent and humble sharing in Berlin. I have to admit that I was temporarily heart-broken when I listened to the MSM negatively dissect this beautiful moment in history. I am always amazed that most of the media CANNOT hear -- with their hearts or minds. It's extremely disappointing, to say the least.

    Thanks for your assessment. It's refreshing!
    Barb in Seattle