Barack in Berlin Debate over Germany Trip Leaves Team Obama Frustrated

Cheering is guaranteed at Barack Obama's speech in Berlin on Thursday, but his campaign is still frustrated and nervous. His appearance in the German capital will be a major test for Obama -- and 40 American journalists will be there to report any faux pas he makes back to the US.

By in Washington, D.C.


Candidate Barack Obama's team has been driven to the point of madness by the debate about his upcoming speech in Berlin.
REUTERS

Candidate Barack Obama's team has been driven to the point of madness by the debate about his upcoming speech in Berlin.

Barack Obama's campaign is frustrated over all the vehement discussions about his speech in Berlin on Thursday. SPIEGEL ONLINE has learned that the recent criticism took the campaign by surprise and frustrated Obama's advisors. At first many Europeans complained about Obama not coming to Europe, but then the criticism shifted to his keynote address on the trans-Atlantic relationship -- and fears it might lack substance. The reaction has left members of his team frustrated.

Although the discussions over where Obama will appear in Berlin are finally over -- he will speak at the Siegessäule, or Victory Column, at around 7 p.m. on Thursday -- another debate is already heating up. Is Obama using Berlin merely as another prop for his election campaign? In an editorial, theInternational Herald Tribune is demanding greater "sobriety" from Obama. The Economist is complaining of "disquieting signs of a tendency on Mr. Obama's part to tailor his message to whichever audience he is talking to." The magazine asks if one will be able to find any real clues from his talk about the future course of US policies in the speech. Others bemoan the fact that the senator isn't even bothering to make a symbolic visit to Brussels, the capital of the European Union. How can he truly be interested in positively transforming the trans-Atlantic relationship if he doesn't make a stopover in the city, they are asking? Paris and London are already frustrated: The two countries feel neglected because Obama is paying them only brief visits.

Germany, however, certainly can't complain about a lack of attention. Yet that still hasn't stopped politicians here in the past few days -- including the head of the center-left Social Democratic Party, Kurt Beck -- from expressing their surprise about statements made by Obama's chief foreign policy adviser. Susan Rice called for more involvement from the US's NATO partners in Afghanistan in a SPIEGEL interview published on Monday. Beck responded by saying, "As far as expanding the mission is concerned, no more can be done." This also sparked concerns the senator could demand something similar from Germany regarding its role in Iraq or that he might emphasize his hard-line position on Iran's nuclear program.

SPIEGEL has learned that the Obama team is frustrated by the controversy surrounding the candidate's Germany visit, with some asking why the trip is so difficult for the Germans to comprehend. The candidate merely wanted to drop by for a visit with America's allies to share his vision of US-European relations. It is said that the address he plans to give in Berlin will not be a stump speech, but rather a substantive speech on trans-Atlantic relations. Of course, as a presidential candidate, Obama is limited to talking about this vision, since he doesn't have the ability to sign documents or treaties or even make policy. And as a man running for the presidency, he obviously has to keep American audiences in mind when he makes appearance abroad.

Obama is said to want to signal to voters back home that he has the necessary gravitas for a president and that he is a man who can reconcile America with the international community following the Bush years. His team believes images of Obama against a backdrop of enthusiastic Europeans will strengthen his campaign. At the same time, he must make sure that he doesn't appear to be more popular abroad than at home.

The reality is that Thursday's appearance in Berlin will be a tight-rope walk for Obama. So far his international trip has gone off without any hitches. His itinerary took him to destinations that are far more controversial than Berlin -- Afghanistan, Iraq and the Middle East -- but he was also very cautious in his public statements. His TV appearances were tightly orchestrated and he barely spoke to journalists during press conferences.

But with his speech in Berlin, Obama will be thrown directly into the spotlight. Here's what he wants to achieve:

  • Obama wants to signal that he will pursue a different foreign policy course than George W. Bush. The word "listen" will pop up frequently in his speech. And he is not expected to openly criticize Bush or Republican candidate John McCain while on foreign soil. He can't show too much sympathy for Europe's frustration with the Bush administration, either. His team is also preparing for the possibility that people who come to see his speech in Berlin may shout epithets against Bush or McCain. To that end, they have also banned posters and placards from the event.

  • In order not to appear overly friendly to the Europeans, Obama will also issue concrete demands during his speech. He said last week he wanted to strengthen NATO by demanding more from America's partners. He said he will "seek greater contributions -- with fewer restrictions -- from NATO allies." In other words, he'll be showing some " tough love." He is expected, for example, to clearly state that Europe must take on greater responsibility in the international community. Still, Obama's advisors apparently aren't overly worried that he will lose his magic in Europe. His advisors are also well aware that the Germans won't like everything he says over the next eight years if he is elected. But he has to be careful not to take things too far. In Berlin, for example, many politicians may have prepared themselves for the demand that they increase Germany's presence in Afghanistan. But that doesn't apply to Iraq, even if the request were as modest as more humanitarian or civilian aid. The annual German Marshall Fund's Transatlantic Trends poll has shown again and again that a radical shift in the US's Iraq policy is the most important precondition for trans-Atlantic rapprochement. If Obama allows Europeans to become doubtful about his Iraq policy intentions, the euphoria could quickly fade.

  • Obama wants to include Germany in this discussion. In addition to his speech in Berlin, he is also meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. (During his stops in France and Britain, he will not be meeting with Steinmeier's counterparts.) In the run-up to Thursday's speech, his team has described German-American relations as "well-established" and stated that Obama believes Merkel is more influential than French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. In order to assuage frustration in London, Paris and Brussels, Obama will have to provide a focus in his speech on broader trans-Atlantic opportunities. Unlike famous predecessors who held addresses in Berlin like John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan, he won't be able to tap into specifically "German issues" like the Cold War.

It will only take a few hours after his speech on Thursday for Obama's team to see whether they succeeded in their tight-rope act. And they won't need to pay any attention to the Berlin media, either. A pack of 40 US reporters, many of whom have followed Obama throughout the campaign -- are coming to Berlin. So are the American news channels. CNN will be broadcasting live from Berlin and the hosts of the three major US TV networks -- ABC, CBS and NBC all plan to broadcast their prime-time newscasts from the German capital.

They will go on air at 12:30 a.m. German time.

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