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In his first year in office, Barack Obama has visited more foreign countries than any other president. He’s touched ground in 16 countries, easily outpacing Bill Clinton (three) and George W. Bush (eleven). It’s an itinerary befitting a “citizen of the world.”
But there’s one stop Obama won’t make. He has begged off going to Berlin next week to attend ceremonies commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall. His schedule is reportedly too crowded. John F. Kennedy famously told Berliners, “Ich bin ein Berliner.” On the 20th anniversary of the last century’s most stirring triumph of freedom, Obama is telling them, “Ich bin beschäftigt” — i.e., I’m busy.
It doesn’t have quite the same ring, does it? Obama’s failure to go to Berlin is the most telling nonevent of his presidency. It’s hard to imagine any other American president eschewing the occasion. Only Obama — with his dismissive view of the Cold War as a relic distorting our thinking and his attenuated commitment to America’s exceptional role in the world — would spurn German chancellor Angela Merkel’s invitation to attend.
Obama famously made a speech in Berlin during last year’s campaign, but at an event devoted to celebrating himself as the apotheosis of world hopefulness. He said of 1989, “a wall came down, a continent came together, and history proved that there is no challenge too great for a world that stands as one.”
The line was typical Obama verbal soufflé, soaring but vulnerable to collapse upon the slightest jostling from logic or historical fact. The wall came down only after the free world resolutely stood against the Communist bloc. Rather than a warm-and-fuzzy exercise in global understanding, the Cold War was another iteration of the 20th century’s long war between totalitarianism and Western liberalism. The West prevailed on the back of American strength.
But Obama doesn’t think in such antiquated, triumphalist terms. Given to apologizing for his nation abroad, he resolutely downplays American leadership. “President Obama is applying the same tools to international diplomacy that he used as a community organizer on Chicago’s South Side,” the Washington Post notes, approaching “the world as a community of nations, more alike than different in outlook and interest.” To the extent that the Cold War doesn’t fit this unbelievably naïve worldview, it’s an intellectual inconvenience.
Wouldn’t Obama at least want to take the occasion to celebrate freedom and human rights — those most cherished liberal values? Not necessarily. He has mostly jettisoned them as foreign-policy goals in favor of a misbegotten realism that soft-pedals the crimes of nasty regimes around the world. During the Cold War, we undermined our enemies by shining a bright light on their repression. In Berlin, JFK called out the Communists on their “offense against humanity.” Obama would utter such a phrase only with the greatest trepidation, lest it undermine a future opportunity for dialogue.
Pres. Ronald Reagan realized we could meet with the Soviets without conceding the legitimacy of their system. He always spoke up for the dissidents — even when it irked his negotiating partner, Mikhail Gorbachev. Whatever the hardheaded imperatives of geopolitics, we’d remain a beacon of liberty in the world.
Obama has relegated this aspirational aspect of American power to the back seat. For him, we are less an exceptional power than one among many, seeking deals with our peers in Beijing and Moscow. Why would Obama want to celebrate the refuseniks of the Eastern Bloc, when he won’t even meet with the Dalai Lama in advance of his trip to China?
So Obama huddles with Merkel during her visit to Washington and leaves it at that. An American president will skip events marking the end of a struggle to which we, as a nation — under presidents of both parties — devoted blood and treasure for 50 years. For Barack Obama, 1989 is just another far-away year — and the Democratic party of such men as Harry S. Truman and JFK has never seemed more distant.