Roger Cohen: Sobriety, Herr Obama

The Obamania in Europe needs to be kept in check. There's too much work to be done.

Barack Obama will be speaking in Berlin on Thursday.
AP

Barack Obama will be speaking in Berlin on Thursday.

Barack Obama has already won the U.S. election by a landslide. In Europe, that is. Polls show the French putting the first African-American in the White House with 86 percent backing. Obamania is about as intense in Germany and Britain, the two other European countries the Senator will visit this week.

So you might ask why Obama’s bothering. He’s got this constituency sewn up. You might also ask why the passion of these European societies for a black man stands in such flagrant contrast to their reluctance to vote minorities into their own legislatures. Freud might have something to say.

I dropped by the Élysée Palace to get a fix on things. The food was shockingly awful — tired crudités, desiccated hake, pasty potato purée — but the Château Batailley 2001 was a beauty. Seems President Nicolas Sarkozy’s too busy for solids.

Everything’s hush-hush about Obama’s movements, but we do know he’ll be at the palace Friday for a 90-minute session with Sarkozy, followed by a press conference. That's a first: French leaders don’t do pressers with U.S. presidential candidates.

But Obama’s visit is also, or maybe principally, about European politics. Sarkozy gets a touch of the Obamaura. Think halos in Florentine Renaissance paintings. Such reflected glory can do no harm, as Sarkozy the opportunist knows well.

The two men already know each other thanks to Jean-David Levitte, then the French U.S. ambassador and now Sarkozy’s shrewd national security adviser. He arranged a meeting with Obama when Sarko showed up in Washington as interior minister in September 2006. They got along famously.

The bonhomie is nice, but there’s work to be done. Obama arrives in Europe at an all-change moment. A U.S. diplomat is attending (inconclusive) discussions with Iran; there’s White House talk of a “general time horizon” for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq; casualties in Afghanistan have risen above Iraqi levels in recent months; and Israel is holding indirect peace talks with Syria.

Iran tops the agenda for the Sarkozy-Obama talks. The French like the incipient dialogue but want sanctions increased until Iran suspends uranium enrichment. Iran’s economy is a shambles (it’s importing 40 percent of its gasoline) and France sees an opportunity to redouble difficulties until the mullahs cede.

It’s interesting when a European power worries the United States might go wobbly. Every now and again Venus and Mars change places. This flux is an opportunity for Europe and America to get their act together.

Take Syria. France is convinced Damascus wants peace with Israel. President Bashar al-Assad had a long meeting with Sarkozy last week. He told the French president he hoped current Turkish-mediated talks with Israel would lead to direct negotiations in the fall co-sponsored by the United States and France, with the two countries guaranteeing security.

It’s too early to say if this idea will fly, although French contacts with Israel and the White House suggest it might. What’s clear is that there’s a significant chance here for the United States and Europe, in concert, to make a difference. Nothing would isolate Iran as much as a Syrian-Israeli peace.

Much has changed since 2000. Too much thinking is still so 20th-century. Wealth and power are shifting from the West. But a basic truism holds: when the United States and Europe work at cross purposes, as in Iraq, disaster ensues. When they work together, as in the Balkans or more recently Kenya, good things happen.

No better illustration of this exists than a united Germany, which is why Obama has chosen to make a speech there Thursday. Again, European politics have intervened. The Social Democrats favor an appearance at the Brandenburg Gate, but Angela Merkel, the Christian Democrat Chancellor who has not met Obama, nixed so presidential a venue for a candidate.

Enter Germany history, as the Obama advance team has discovered. Some bright spark suggested the Victory Column in the Tiergarten as an alternative venue, but an older hand pointed out that one of the victories in question was Bismarck’s quashing of France — not ideal on the eve of the Paris visit.

Templehof airport was aired as a compromise, a suitable nod to the Allies’ 1948 airlift, but with the downside that it was designed by Albert Speer, Hitler’s architect. Aaah well, the past is ineffaceable.

That’s a good intellectual departure point for Obama. As Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, the Chrisitan Democrat foreign policy spokesman, said: “Obama mustn’t give the impression everything will change. He must build trust but not overload visions.”

Obama can galvanize this change moment. Capitalizing on shifts (Israel-Syria, Israel-Palestine, Iraq, Iran) will be the work of his presidency if he wins. On all these fronts, and Afghanistan, he needs Europe. So keep the mania in check. Location, location, location has been the Berlin issue. My advice to him is: sobriety, sobriety, sobriety.

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