Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Obama, Berliner

Ross Douthat writes:
Yes, of course the Hitler comparisons are absurd, but I'd really like to know which genius on the Obama campaign thought it would be a good idea to have their candidate conduct a major campaign rally in Europe with three months to go till the election and their candidate, despite an incredibly favorable climate and a fumbling opponent, still clinging to a 2-4 point lead in the polls? Overall, the overseas tour has been good to Obama, both for the obvious reasons and because making joint appearances with foreign leaders is a solid-enough way to build up his credibility as a potential Commander-in-Chief. But photo ops are one thing, Beatlemania-style rallies are quite another - and having your candidate appear in front of tens of thousands of adoring European fans when your campaign's biggest problem, as John Judis puts it today, is that "Obama remains the 'mysterious stranger' rather than the 'American Adam' to too many voters who are put off rather than attracted by his race and exotic background" strikes me as the height of political folly. The Berlin rally probably won't hurt Obama - voters aren't really paying attention to anything election-related right about now, and it'll be forgotten by the time the fall campaign begins in earnest. But it could do some minor damage, and it certainly won't help him. (If he's counting on the expat vote to put him over the top, then he's in more trouble than anyone thinks.) Is it too late to call the whole thing off?
The Berlin rally won't help Obama if it's only a rally for his fans and a photo-opportunity back home. But Presidents (and by extension Presidential candidates) don't go to Berlin to be photographed with Germans. You go to Berlin to make major foreign policy speeches, about the future of American-European relationships, based on the common threats you face and the common values you share. That's what Kennedy did in 1963, and Reagan did in 1987.

I don't think it's likely that Obama is going to convene tens or hundreds of thousands of Berliners near the end of a tour of the Middle East and not give the foreign and domestic press something more to chew on than just the spectacle.

If you want to read the tea leaves, Samantha Power's review-essay in the NYRB ("The Democrats and National Security") is a good place to start:
• The New versus the Old. Democrats should argue that their foreign policy is particularly well suited to meeting today's unconventional threats —those that cross borders. Meeting such threats will sometimes entail using military force, but it will almost always require mustering global cooperation. Here the Democrats must point to the security consequences of the loss of respect for the United States around the world: the US requires the assistance of others to aid it in combating terrorism, halting nuclear proliferation, and reversing global warming. In scorning international law and public opinion abroad, Republicans have alienated those the US needs to share the burden of neutralizing threats that Americans deem the most pressing. Democrats for instance, will be more effective in securing the cooperation of intelligence and law enforcement officials in the eighty countries in which al-Qaeda is now active.

• Deeds versus Words. In his National Security Strategy for 2002, Bush used the words "liberty" eleven times, "freedom" forty-six times, and "dignity" nine times; yet people who live under oppression around the world have seen few benefits from President Bush's freedom doctrine. Richard Armitage, former deputy secretary of state under Bush, put it best when he said, "Since 9/11 our principal export to the world has been our fear." The gulf between America's rights rhetoric and the abuses carried out against detainees in American custody has been fatal to American credibility. Obama needs to restore that credibility by ending those excesses, and by following through on his pledge to launch a foreign aid initiative rooted in Franklin Roosevelt's core democratic value: freedom from fear. The United States should invest in a long-term "rule of law" initiative that takes up the burden of helping other countries and international organizations to build workable legal systems in the developing world.

• Law versus Lawlessness. In arguing for closing down Guantánamo, ending extraordinary rendition, and returning to the Geneva Conventions, Democrats must remind voters of the national security consequences of being perceived as a lawbreaker. More terrorists take up arms against the United States, while fewer countries take up arms along with the United States. In stressing the importance of law, Democrats should also repudiate the extraordinary and illegitimate presidential power seized by Bush (and generally supported by McCain). As a constitutional lawyer, Obama is in a unique position to argue that as commander in chief, he will never hold himself or his advisers above the law.
Those all sound like themes that might play well to the audience in Berlin and the audience at home, and ones suitable to the historic frame that Obama's trying to capture. And with respect to the foreign policy failures of the Republicans, it mounts an attack with a lot more bite than going to Israel and tossing around references to Neville Chamberlain.


Dan said...

You're surely correct on the speech, Tim. And the link to Powers is sharp thinking.

I can imagine another benefit to the Obama rally. What if he got a few thousand Europeans to stand around out in the open and wave American flags. It would have all of the makings of an iconic photograph. And I'd like to see the Republicans argue against people waving American flags.

Tim said...

The image of Berliners waving the American flag would be awesome. And it does point to the one difficulty of this trip, and any criticism of U.S. foreign policy he might make, which needs to be very subtle. Obama can't be seen trashing the U.S. in front of a foreign audience. At all. He needs to BE America, not a critic of America. And for the U.S. to see that Europeans see Obama as the best of America, not just as someone they like or with whom they could work or agree would help solidify their sense that Obama could be a great American President.

Tim said...

Or as they used to say, "Leader of the Free World."