The President in Berlin: Obama Through the Prism of the Cold War
History is everywhere in Berlin, as US President Barack Obama and his family found out on Wednesday. And the lessons of that past are clear -- which helps explain the president's challenging task of seeking to assuage German doubts about the Prism surveillance program.
The Obamas slept in no man's land. The Ritz Carlton, where US President Barack Obama and his family stayed on Tuesday night as part of their 25-hour whirlwind visit to the German capital, is located on Potsdamer Platz, a part of Berlin that didn't exist 24 years ago. It was nothing but an open space littered with East German mines and trapped behind the Berlin Wall.
Berlin, of course, is full of such places of historical significance. And the Obama family visited many of them on Wednesday. The president himself delivered his keynote address at the Brandenburg Gate, itself trapped for 28 years in the death strip created by the Berlin Wall. Prior to that, he visited with German President Joachim Gauck, a well-respected pastor from the former East Germany who played a role in the peaceful dissolution of the communist state, and Chancellor Angela Merkel, likewise a product of East Germany.
First Lady Michelle, along with Sasha and Malia, visited the Holocaust Memorial across the street from their hotel before heading up to the Berlin Wall Memorial just north of the city center.
German leaders have seemed eager to ensure that their concerns about the digital spying operation be taken seriously. Several have blasted both Obama and the National Security Agency, perhaps none as vociferously as Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger.
Wednesday, despite the day-long Barack-fest in the German capital, was no different. Philip Rösler, Angela Merkel's vice chancellor and head of her junior coalition partners, the Free Democrats, said on public television that he was "extremely unsettled" by the spying program. Former German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier of the opposition Social Democrats added that, while he understood US security concerns, "that can't be synonymous with mass surveillance."
Merkel too voiced careful criticism of the program during the pair's joint press conference at the Chancellery. She made sure to emphasize that Germany had received important intelligence from the US which played a role in thwarting planned terrorist activity here. But, she added: "I made clear that, despite the necessity, the issue of balance is an important one."
Obama was ready for questions about the Prism program, which has been likened in both the US and German press to George Orwell's "Big Brother," made famous in his novel "1984." Rather than trying to dodge reporters' queries, he took time to defend the program and explain its importance for US security. At the press conference, Obama also fielded difficult questions about some additional elements of US foreign and domestic policy that many in Germany find problematic, including Washington's policy of using drones to hunt down suspected terrorist leaders in Afghanistan and the border regions of Pakistan, and the ongoing existence of the Guantanamo detention camp.
Shrimp and Asparagus
Still, issuing an elaborate justification for a vast state surveillance program at exactly the same time as his wife and daughters were placing flowers at the remnants of the Berlin Wall is nothing if not ironic. East Berlin, after all, was the mother of all spy-states. Visitors to the Wall memorial learn that the state, known counter-intuitively as the German Democratic Republic, maintained a network of well over 100,000 citizen spies to keep close watch on their neighbors in addition to thousands of professional moles. Presumed enemies of the state were locked up.
Prism, of course, can hardly be compared to such a state-sponsored system of thought control. Still, media reports indicate that the NSA, using a data mining tool called "Boundless Informant," collected some 97 billion pieces of information in March of this year alone.
From the Chancellery, following a lunch of shrimp, asparagus and veal, Obama moved on to the highlight of his visit, a keynote speech in front of the Brandenburg Gate. Here too, though, the president was dogged by history. Presidential speeches in Berlin have become known for their inspired oration, celebrations of freedom and pleas for peace. John F. Kennedy is beloved in the German capital for his 1963 "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech. Ronald Reagan demanded of Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987 that he "tear down this wall." And Bill Clinton, in 1994, hailed East Germans, saying they had "turned your dreams of a better life into the chisels of liberty."
Obama added himself to the list in July 2008 in his speech at the Victory Column, just down the street from the Brandenburg Gate, as a presidential candidate. "This city, of all cities, knows the dream of freedom."
'Ich Bin Ein East Berliner?'
His speech on Wednesday was a clear effort to continue the tradition. Following an introduction from Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit and Chancellor Merkel outlining thehighlights of German-American relations, Obama praised Berlin as a symbol of freedom and the fight against tyranny. Of the wall which once cut off the very place where he stood, he said "no wall can stand against the yearning for justice, the yearning for freedom, the yearning for peace that burns in the human heart."
He then made the surprise policy pitch that had already leaked to the media on Wednesday morning: that of seeking to further reduce the US and Russian arsenals of strategic nuclear weapons.
Obama is a gifted orator. But it remains to be seen whether the president's impassioned words in front of Berlin's pre-eminent Cold War symbol will be enough to assuage deep German disappointment over the fact that Obama has failed to live up to expectations. Prior to the speech, Peter Thompson of the Guardian aptly summed up the feeling, tweeting: "Given PRISM will his speech become known as the "Ich bin ein East Berliner" speech?"
That seems overly harsh. Still, there was hardly a place in Obama's trip through Berlin on Wednesday that was not laden with historical baggage, much of it of the negative kind. Of the city's past, Obama said in his speech that "that history speaks to us."
Many in Germany will be hoping that he hears the message.
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