On November 9, 2009, the world will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Naturally, in Germany, there will be commemorations of the event, and the collapse of Communism in Europe. For those who lived through the Cold War, and saw the fall of the Wall, it was an extraordinary event; I for one will never forget the images of East Germans climbing over the wall, chiseling and hammering at it to break off pieces large and small, and reuniting with family members they had not seen in decades. I will never forget the helpless look on the faces of East German guards, who gradually realized–in their dimwitted, knuckle-dragging way–that their days of tyrannizing their populace were coming to an end. I will never forget then-former President Ronald Reagan being interviewed by his old sparring partner, Sam Donaldson, on ABC’s Prime Time Live, reveling in the moment he and his policies helped bring about, and reminding people that while it was all right to be amazed at seeing the fall of the Wall and the re-emergence of liberty in Eastern Europe, it was certainly not all right to be surprised by such a sight. After all, Reagan asked, why should anyone be surprised that a downtrodden people would rise up and fight for their freedoms?
So, needless to say, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, the end of the Soviet Union, and the complete immolation of the Communist threat in Eastern Europe were all a very big collective deal. It is right, decent, and proper that we should celebrate the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall twenty years later; indeed, we should make a point of celebrating the anniversary every year, for as long as humankind survives. By doing so, we celebrate the restoration of the human spirit itself, after decades of being stifled by a brutal East German Communist dictatorship that worked hand in glove with its Soviet masters in denying basic aspirations for civil and political liberty among its populace.
And given all of this, it is safe to say that Barack Obama will attend the 20th anniversary celebration of the fall of the Wall, right?
While Candidate Barack Obama was perfectly willing to go to Germany during the 2008 Presidential campaign, President Barack Obama has chosen to skip the 20th anniversary celebrations altogether. Needless to say, this has not elicited much outrage in the mainstream media; Newsweek has gone so far as to both sweep the President’s astonishing decision not to attend under the rug, while pretending that Berlin has already been graced by an Obamaian Presidential visit, assuming that one can consider the 2008 foray to Germany an Obamaian Presidential visit in retrospect. In fact, there should be more attention paid to this issue, since it helps highlight some key aspects of Barack Obama’s personality and governing style.
This President appears to be unwilling to invest himself in a great cause, unless he can somehow derive a personal or political benefit out of that cause. Barack Obama went to Germany when it was important to look and act Presidential in front of people who can’t even vote in our elections, but he won’t go when it is important to turn the spotlight onto the German people, and celebrate all of the work they have done to try to overcome the bitter and agonizing post-war divisions of the past. He was glad to be in Germany when it was all about him, but shies away from going when it becomes all about the Germans.
And the Germans face a whole host of challenges. Despite the remarkable strides that they have made since reunification, there remain tremendous challenges for the Germans to overcome. The standard of living in what was East Germany has not yet caught up to the standard in the West. Among some Germans, there are questions as to whether reunification was worth it, and there even is a strain of Ostalgie with which Germans–and by extension, the world–must contend. Kitsch is harmless most of the time, to be sure, but it can eventually morph into something more dangerous, like, say, backsliding into authoritarianism or totalitarianism. The Germans might have benefited from having an American President with Obama’s undoubted rhetorical eloquence come to Germany, celebrate their triumph, speak candidly about the challenges the Germans continue to face, and urge them to be brave in confronting those challenges, with the added assurance that the United States would continue to support them in the days and years ahead. Unfortunately, that kind of reassurance from the President isn’t in the offing during the 20th anniversary celebrations.
The President’s failure to attend the celebrations is of a piece with his refusal to use the power of the Presidency to advance political liberties around the world. Perhaps we shouldn’t have expected Barack Obama to commemorate the fall of the Berlin Wall, when he wouldn’t meet with the Dalai Lama when the latter was in Washington, DC in October. Perhaps we shouldn’t have expected Barack Obama to help celebrate the event that led to the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe when he won’t speak up on behalf of Iranian dissidents, for fear of angering the Iranian regime.
Much is made about the “realist” bent of the Obama Administration’s approach to foreign policy. I am all for realpolitik, but realpolitik is not undermined by commemorating an important historical event. For that matter, realpolitik is not undermined by taking actions that advance civil and political rights, while at the same time, increasing pressure on an adversary regime in ways that will ultimately help advance American interests.
But as we have learned, this Administration has a strange conception of realpolitk, history, and foreign policy priorities. It’s nice that Barack Obama has such a superb sense of the moment when it comes to campaigning for his political viability. Too bad that sense of the moment deserts him when it comes to actually being President.
Pejman Yousefzadeh is a Senior Editor of The New Ledger.