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Obama-Gate (The Brandenburg Gate, That Is)

The American presidential candidate Barack Obama will be visiting Germany on July 24 — and he wants to give a campaign speech in front of the Brandenburg Gate during his visit.

Berlin’s socialist mayor Klaus Wowereit welcomed the idea: he found it amazing. And amazing, it is. It would not occur to anyone in France to let Oskar Lafontaine, the co-Chair of the German Left Party, hold a campaign speech at the Arc de Triomphe. No one in England would think of helping one of the Kaczynski brothers stump for Polish votes in front of Buckingham Palace. No Russian could imagine a Ségolène Royal campaigning in front of the Kremlin. Why not? Because there is such a thing as a feeling of reverence toward national symbols. And this feeling forbids one from allowing such places to be misused for the politicking of foreign nations. It shows a lack of respect to want to degrade the historical monuments of friendly countries into electoral campaign scenery.

The fact that he seemingly perceives the world in purely theatrical terms casts the hyperactive candidate Obama in a strange light. By virtue of his request he makes brazenly clear that he is not really interested in Germany as such. What interests him is, above all, the décor for a good photo opportunity. In earlier times, a critical public would have denounced such showmanship as imperialist. Today one says more calmly that it is clumsy.

For apart from questions of sensitivity and protocol, the proposal was also politically short-sighted. A German government cannot and will not intervene in foreign power struggles. It is simply a matter of political common sense for democratic countries to refrain from getting involved in the elections of other countries. This is a matter of respect, but also of calculated self-interest. Since you never know who will win, it is more advisable to stay neutral. As consequence, the German government cannot show preference to Obama: whatever Obama is permitted, McCain must also be permitted. Even before becoming American President, Obama has thus managed to embarrass one of his most important allies. Hardly an intelligent move. But he evidently does not think in terms of the long-term categories of real politics, but rather in terms of the short-term effects of political spectacle.

The puzzling image of Obama that is currently the subject of passionate debate in America has now reached Germany. Following the leaden Bush years, one would in fact like there to be a youthful, reformist new-start in America, such as Obama incarnates. But when one has a closer look, one begins to have doubts: To what end exactly is this magic of “change” — the word of the year in the USA — supposed to be used? Or is it the magic, after all, just a magic of self-promotion?

Obama’s foreign policy escapades of the last few weeks have many of his European friends wondering whether one will be able to be as enthusiastic about a President Obama as one is at the moment about the candidate. His latest flip-flops, whether on the Iraq War or the death penalty, give reason to suspect that Obama is a very great showman, but a very limited strategic thinker. He is indeed “amazing.”

(Translators note: The original German title of this piece is “Tor Obama.Tor can mean “gate” — as in the “Brandenburg Gate” [Brandenburger Tor] — but it can also mean: “fool.”)

The above article first appeared here in German on the collective blog Die Achse des Guten [The Axis of Good]. The English translation is by John Rosenthal.

Wolfram Weimer is the editor in chief of the German political monthly Cicero.

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