By Gregor Peter Schmitz in Washington, D.C.
Barack Obama arriving in San Diego: The Democratic presidential candidate is no longer expected to speak in front of Berlin's Brandenburg Gate.
If the American journalists covering the campaign trail didn't know all about the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin before, they certainly do now. On Sunday, Barack Obama mingled on a flight to San Diego with the pack of journalists who have been following him day in and day out. He doesn't make these trips to the back of the plane as much as he did earlier in the campaign, and the questions asked by journalists were only the most pressing ones. According to the New York Times, they talked about race relations, the credit crunch and Iraq.
But another issue made it on to the journalists' lists, too: Obama's plan to give a speech in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on July 24.
It was almost as if he said it in passing, but even so, it sounded as though it were the end of the ambitious plans for a speech at the Brandenburg Gate that has kept his team on tenterhooks for days now. The debate those plans sparked have even come as a surprise to his staff.
But it is believed that a resolution to the issue is imminent. Members of Obama's team are expected to arrive in Berlin early this week to iron out the logistical details for the presumed Democratic Party presidential candidate's address. Their hope is that the domestic brouhaha surrounding the visit in Germany -- which has divided Merkel (who thinks the choice of the Gate is "odd") from Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier (who supports the speech) and Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit (who would love nothing better than to host Obama at the Brandenburg Gate) -- will now die down.
They need to find a quick resolution -- the Gate controversy has achieved exactly what Obama's team wanted to avoid entirely: It has made his plans to travel to Europe a campaign issue. CNN asks, for example: Is an open conflict with the chancellor of Germany, one of our key allies, a good example of the cooperative type of foreign policy Obama is pledging?
"A Bit Na´ve"
Bill Galston, once a close advisor to Bill Clinton, complained in the Daily Telegraph that the Obama campaign had been "a bit na´ve." And the popular Web site Politico quoted an American in Berlin advising the German government on the visit saying that if Obama were to come and give the speech at the Brandenburg Gate against Merkel's wishes, it could be seen as "arrogant" and "presumptuous." And letters from readers posted on Republican Party-aligned Web sites see Obama's ambitious speech plans as evidence of a Democratic presidential candidate they feel is completely self-enamored.
The reaction has reinforced the voices of some members of his campaign team who have been wary of the Europe trip from the beginning. They understood the utility of having Obama underscore his European policy chops -- especially after criticism from Hillary Clinton in the primary that as the chairman of the Senate's subcommittee on Europe, Obama didn't hold a single hearing. Republican contender John McCain, on the other hand, is considered by many to be a dyed-in-the-wool trans-Atlanticist who is well known in European capitals.
The Brandenburg Gate presented the perfect stage for Obama to underscore the potential for quickly repairing America's tarnished reputation in Europe. "Americans are particularly concerned about the loss of trust in countries like Germany, which were key allies for so long. And Berlin and the Brandenburg Gate will have special symbolic importance," Stephen Szabo of the German Marshall Fund in Washington told SPIEGEL ONLINE. In his Berlin speech, Obama wants to promote a new beginning for trans-Atlantic relations.
Inside the Obama camp, opinions are split on whether the turbulence and effort is really worth it. Europe doesn't play a very important role in the US election, and references to the continent can easily backfire. When Obama recommended this week that Americans should be more like Europeans when it comes to learning foreign languages, Republican detractors promptly volleyed him with criticism. Former Republican primary candidate Mitt Romney lashed out, saying, "I do think that, frankly, Barack Obama looks towards Europe for a lot of his inspiration. John McCain is going to make sure that America stays America."
That kind of rhetoric is familiar. During the 2004 election, then-Democratic candidate John Kerry boasted that European statesmen were hoping for a Democratic win. The Republicans went on to caricature him as being "too European."
Obama is pushing ahead anyway, although his staging will be a little less grandiose than he originally planned. Technically, Obama could give the speech at the Brandenburg Gate -- the city government's spokesman, Richard Meng, reiterated again on Sunday that Berlin's offer to let him speak at the legendary symbol of the Cold War still stands.
But it is far more probable that Obama will appear at a more neutral location -- in front of the former West Berlin city hall in the Sch÷neberg district (where Kennedy gave his famous "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech), Tempelhof Airport, in front of the Reichstag (home to Germany's parliament) or at picturesque Gendarmenmarkt Square. He'll have plenty of opportunities at any of those locations for photo ops of cheering Europeans that he can then use for his campaign at home to show that he has support on the continent. Besides, he will also still have a chance to pass through the Brandenburg Gate for yet further Kodak moments.
But for Obama's strategists, the most important thing is to prevent any further public debate on the speech. Still, "they have no interest in dissecting the German debate," said Szabo, "even if they haven't entirely forgotten Merkel's strong word choices." Nor do they want to get tangled up in the discussion over whether the Bush administration tried to influence Merkel on the speech. Both the White House and the Chancellery in Berlin have strongly denied the rumors.
At the same time, it's an open secret that the White House is supporting John McCain's election bid -- and it requires no stretch of the imagination to see why it might want to hinder an overly heartfelt greeting for Obama in Berlin. Former Bush election strategists have now moved over to McCain's campaign staff.
The McCain Factor
After McCain's trip to Colombia in early July, accusations bubbled up that the White House helped secure a PR coup for the candidate. McCain was given a detailed briefing in advance on the plans of the Colombian government, which enjoys friendly ties with the Bush administration, to free long-time FARC hostage Ingrid Betancourt -- a development that helped him to appear very presidential. In this case, too, the White House has denied exercising any influence.
Just after Europe, Obama has an even more important trip on his agenda: Iraq. Over the weekend, perhaps in a bid to divert attention from the Berlin debate, Obama's team presented the first details of his Iraq trip. Republican Senator Chuck Hagel is going to accompany Obama on the trip.
Rumors have been persistent that Hagel -- a foreign policy expert who sharply criticized Bush's Iraq policies -- would consider being Obama's running mate if he were offered a spot on the ticket. Obama showered the Republican senator with praise on Sunday, saying that Hagel is no ideologue, but rather someone who tries to get the facts right. He also described him as a "good guy."
Stay informed with our free news services:
|All news from SPIEGEL International||Twitter | RSS|
|All news from Europe section||RSS|
ę SPIEGEL ONLINE 2008
All Rights Reserved
Reproduction only allowed with the permission of SPIEGELnet GmbH