Obama in Berlin

Friday, July 25, 2008

An occasional feature in which The Post asks for first impressions on a subject in the news. In this edition: Douglas E. Schoen, John Kornblum, Michael Rubin, Nancy Soderberg, Karen Donfried and Stephen E. Biegun.

Douglas E. Schoen, pollster and author of "Declaring Independence: The Beginning of the End of the Two-Party System"

The pundits are unanimous. Barack Obama's tour of the Middle East was a triumph, but his speech in Berlin was fraught with risk. Even Obama's supporters worried that it was too political, too presumptions, too foreign, too novel -- in short, too much like the things many skeptics find most worrisome about the candidate himself. So why did he do it

To win in November, Barack Obama must convince voters that his worldview trumps John McCain's credentials. If Obama can do this, victory is certain. Yesterday's speech was the first salvo in this all-important campaign.

Despite Obama's recent successes, polls suggest serious weaknesses. According to the latest NBC-Wall Street Journal survey, Americans see Obama as a riskier choice for president than McCain by a margin of 20 percentage points. Thirty-four percent see McCain as the more experienced commander in chief. That's why Obama sought to do something bold in Berlin. Instead of touting programs and proposals, he offered a worldview -- one in which the best way for America to secure its safety and prosperity is to elect him president. Partnership with Europe and the rest of the world is the only way to proceed, his speech insisted. In place of a war on "Islamofascism" or a new Cold War with Russia, Obama offered engagement. Instead of American exceptionalism, he offered cooperation and even apologies for past misdeeds.

In a multicultural world, the real risk, Obama implied, would be to elect a president who lacked his background and values.

John Kornblum, ambassador to Germany during the Clinton administration and commentator for the German network ZDF

I was standing on a raised platform about 25 yards from Obama yesterday. Most of the audience -- a sea of young people shouting "Obamaaa!" and "Yes, we can!" -- were not native speakers of English, and some perhaps didn't understand English at all, but they didn't seem to care. The young people seemed to feel that he was speaking to them. German officials had been nervous about the speech, fearing Obama would hit their weakest point -- more troops in Afghanistan. Instead, he spoke of new challenges for which we are all responsible. He made clear that, to him, problems in Afghanistan or Sudan affect all of us, at home. We would all be expected to do our part. The young Germans listened intently. Most of them are certainly not in favor of sending troops to Afghanistan. But Obama's message seemed to sink in, and they loved it.

Afterward, we network commentators from the older generation wondered about the meaning of what we had witnessed. Whatever magic Obama has with youths in the United States seems to translate overseas, at least in Berlin. We had a sense of being part of something new without being able to describe what it was.

Michael Rubin, resident scholar, American Enterprise Institute and adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority in 2003-04

Obama's words are inspirational, but if anything is to be learned from the Bush administration, it is that leadership must run deeper than rhetoric. Berlin's freedom was won with blood and treasure. It was not secured with withdrawals or unilateral disarmament.

Consistency matters. Obama has yet to recognize that grand strategy cannot be as ephemeral as public opinion. Polls measure short-term desires, not long-term wisdom. After the devastation of World War I, Britons wanted no more war. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich convinced he had fulfilled their wishes, but his diplomacy only emboldened his enemies. The American public punished Harry S. Truman for sending troops to die in Korea. Today he is remembered as among the greatest presidents, and deservedly so, as any comparison of North and South Korea attests.

We must work with our allies, but we also must recognize that multilateralism comes with a price. Coalitions can dilute effectiveness. The European concept of multilateralism is Washington's obeisance to European positions. Western Europe exists in a bubble of stability and affluence, unable to fathom how dangerous extremist ideology in Tehran and Pyongyang can be. Multilateral organizations are not the answer; at best, they are ineffective soap boxes, at worst cesspools of venality. Rose petals and well-digging have never stopped bombs, racism or genocide. A strong military has.

Obama says, "Let us remember this history." Let us hope he first learns it. Leadership is about more than rhetoric.

Nancy Soderberg, represented the Clinton administration at the United Nations and is a distinguished visiting scholar at the University of North Florida

Obama's trip has demonstrated that this candidate can play on the global stage. His message was exactly what Europeans have yearned for from an American president. The question is whether America is ready for it. We should and must be.

Obama's key message yesterday was that he understands that America must engage and lead in finding solutions to the world's challenges -- that they are our problems, too. America's next president must be much more than "Ein Berliner."

That is why Obama emphasized the need for American leadership in giving "hope to those left behind in a globalized world." Only by forging American-led solutions to poverty, AIDS, the food crisis and the problems of the Middle East can America regain its standing in the world. And only by restoring this standing can America regain the world's trust and persuade others to help us with the challenges of proliferation and terrorism.

At a time in which Americans are turning inward, fearful of a weak economy and wary of foreign engagements, Obama's message is a tough sell at home. But it is the only one that can keep America safe, secure and prosperous.

Karen Donfried, executive vice president, German Marshall Fund (the views expressed here are her own)

For Germans, who embraced multilateralism and renounced nationalism after World War II, the notes Obama hit resonated. Whether Obama or McCain ultimately lands in the White House, the European desire for change in America is palpable. The mood among those gathered belied the idea that there is deep anti-Americanism in Germany. Rather, there is a deep yearning for American leadership that Germans can rally around.

Stephen E. Biegun, executive secretary to the National Security Council from 2001-03 and an unpaid adviser to John McCain's campaign

Obama's speech lived up to its billing. It is gratifying to see any American perform before an adoring turnout. Yet while similar in stagecraft to appearances in Berlin by Presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, Obama's speech was different -- the words of a commentator on history, not a participant. In a way, this speech represents the easiest part -- telling the throngs what they want to hear. It is the difficult work of bringing a vision to reality that will test our next president.

Consider: Obama elegantly recited Berlin's history -- destruction, division and the dismantling of the Wall. But he spent precious little time on the difficulties of political leadership that achieved a Europe whole and free -- when equally large throngs jeered NATO policies in European capitals. It is tempting to think that such troubles are behind us forever. But when faced by similarly severe choices in the future, as will happen, the test for an American president will be leadership and resolve -- not crowd size.

On his first trip to Berlin, Obama gave a speech on how the United States and Europe can together change the world. John McCain has spent a lifetime working to achieve it.

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