In December, President Obama will fly to Oslo to receive in person the Nobel Peace Prize he was recently awarded — beating, among others, Chinese dissident Hu Jia. He might also drop in next door to Copenhagen, where the United Nations will be trying to arrive at a global solution to climate change, a sort of another Kyoto, only successful.
President Obama, however, will miss the November 9 celebrations of the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the event symbolically marking the end of the Cold War. “Barack too busy,” reports Germany’s Spiegel.
Unkind cynics might say that Barack is too busy preparing America’s future defeats to celebrate her past victories. But even the more sympathetic observers will wonder what sort of “scheduling difficulties” will keep the leader of the free world from participating in a celebration of one of the most momentous events in the history of the twentieth century — one which was a culmination of America’s longest (albeit cold) war and which represented the victory and vindication of everything that America stood for over the forces of tyranny and totalitarianism.
Obama, of course, has notoriously missed another recent anniversary. The seventieth commemorations of the start of the Second World War held in Gdansk, Poland, were a rather low-key affair, though they did manage to attract Germany’s Angela Merkel and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Obama could perhaps be forgiven for his absence at this somber occasion, since for the United States the war did not really start until more than two years later. What was more difficult to forgive and explain was Obama’s decision to celebrate the seventieth anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland, seventeen days later, by scraping the original missile defense shield over Poland and the rest of the Central Europe.
Unlike the Polish anniversaries, the celebrations in Berlin will be a big international affair, involving everyone from Lech Walesa — the legendary Solidarity leader and Obama’s fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner — to Kofi Annan, to every liberal’s favorite commie, Mikhail Gorbachev. Instead of basking in Obama’s glory, Messrs. Walesa, Annan, and Gorbachev will have to settle for Joe Biden. Aside from the Berlin celebrations, the vice president will travel around Eastern and Central Europe with an unenviable task of trying to convince the allies that they aren’t really getting screwed by the Obama administration in order to placate Russia.
My grandparents remember where they were when the Second World War started; my parents remember where they were when they heard John F. Kennedy was shot. For me, mid-Generation X, I will always remember when the second plane hit the World Trade Center, and I will also remember when Berliners started climbing on top of the Berlin Wall.
While I spent the first fifteen years of my life living in the long shadow of the Berlin Wall — the Iron Curtain made flesh of concrete and barbed wire — I watched its downfall from far away, sharing the experience with tens of millions of others around the world who tuned in to this first major global media event of the CNN era. Even on the other side of the world, the feeling of euphoria, joy, and relief was palpable. The long nightmare was finally over; the good guys had won. The short and very bloody twentieth century that started in the trenches of 1914 was now symbolically over, with freedom and democracy triumphant and totalitarianism vanquished and consigned to Ronald Reagan’s ash heap of history.
I still have a tiny piece of the Berlin Wall sitting on my desk, a small reminder that the last century was not all just some bad dream. With every passing year the memories get hazier. It’s becoming harder to believe that for decades the whole world had lived in constant fear of nuclear war, gripped in a titanic struggle between the empire of freedom, however imperfect, and the empire of unfreedom, however alluring.
I wonder what, if anything, the fall of the Berlin Wall meant for the young Barack Obama?
A year earlier, in 1988, he entered Harvard Law School, traveled to Europe for the first time, and then to Kenya, where he met his father, also for the first time. In 1989, while still at the law school, he spent summer working as an associate at Sidley & Austin, where he met Michelle and made many contacts later useful for his political future. Clearly this was a very important time in Obama’s personal life, as well as the start of his slow ascent up the Chicago political ladder. If the end of the Cold War had sent any shivers down his spine the fall of 1989, it didn’t seem to have left any lasting imprint on his political psyche.
For a person whose multicultural parentage and cosmopolitan upbringing was touted as an antidote to his predecessor’s alleged Texan small-mindedness and ignorance of the abroad, Obama is proving to be far more incurious and naïve about the wider world than George W. could ever be accused of. Perhaps you can take a community organizer out of Chicago, but you can’t take Chicago out of a community organizer; the world is not merely a big version of Cook County.
Just as disappointingly — for a president who seems to be so much more a symbol than a chief executive — Obama is demonstrating quite a tin ear for the power of living history. The mystic chords of memory that another Illinoian president had so lyrically once evoked don’t seem to strike any grand melody for Obama. It is as if he shared his wife’s belief that nothing good, or even particularly memorable, happened in America or through America prior to his election.
The Cold War, whose successful and peaceful ending we will be celebrating soon, was as much the war of Truman, JFK, and Johnson as it was the war of Eisenhower, Nixon, and Reagan. For whatever reason Obama might not be interested in celebrating his country’s victory over communism, he’s giving a cold shoulder not just to the legacy of the dreaded conservative hawks, but also in large part to a proud tradition of his own party.
Obama’s no stranger to Berlin, having given a campaign speech there in July last year against the backdrop of the Brandenburg Gate, surrounded by an adoring crowd of 200,000 Germans. But that speech, for all its international content and poetic evocations of Berlin as a beacon of freedom, was really about Obama.
Now, when it’s about his country and his predecessors, the president will not even vote present.
That John F. Kennedy could go to Germany and be “a Berliner” told you all you needed to know about that Democratic administration. That Barack Obama won’t do so now sadly tells you all you need to know about the current one.