Politics & Policy

Forgetting the Fall

They tore down the wall; he tears up his invitation.

President Barack Obama has RSVPed “nein” to Chancellor Merkel’s invitation to Germany to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. National Review Online asked a few experts what this snub reveals about our current president.

DINESH D’SOUZA

I’m glad Obama is not going. Of course it’s a stupid move for him politically, but I’m all for stupid moves by this guy. If Obama were wily like Bill Clinton, he would go to the Berlin Wall and make a lot of pompous statements about how “we” won the Cold War. Clinton knew very well that “we” didn’t win the Cold War; Reagan did. The Republicans did.

Reagan had some crucial allies: Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II, Vaclav Havel, Lech Walesa. Gorbachev too played an important role, although it was largely a role that he didn’t intend to play, one that was scripted for him by Reagan. But the West’s victory in the Cold War was not one that would have occurred if the policies of liberal Democrats had been in place. For this reason, the fall of the Berlin Wall is a reminder that liberalism was proven wrong in perhaps the greatest foreign-policy challenge since World War II.

Obama probably thinks he has more important things to do than to go to Berlin. What he doesn’t realize is that his mask is coming off: The serene, above-the-fray Obama of the presidential campaign is now giving way to the partisan ideologue that appears to be the real Obama. If Obama went to Berlin, he would have a chance to put his mask back on. Perhaps it’s best that he stay home.

— Dinesh D’Souza is the author of Ronald Reagan: How an Ordinary Man Became an Extraordinary Leader and, most recently, Life After Death: The Evidence.

FRANK GAFFNEY

Nine words say it all: Undermine our allies. Embolden our enemies. Diminish our country.

That’s the Obama Doctrine in a nutshell, and the slighting of Germany with regard to one of the most symbolic and consequential expressions of the quest for freedom undertaken in the teeth of Soviet oppression does all three.

— Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is president of the Center for Security Policy in Washington.

LARRY GREENFIELD

GDR citizen Helke Dittrich, 25, managed to escape East Berlin by lying down between two hollowed-out surfboards. The Stuttgart shop mechanic Ulrich Werner, 27, whom she married afterward, smuggled her out. The surfboards were brought out on the rooftop of a Renault Fuego, which made its way across the Berlin Wall checkpoint.

The year was 1987, the year that Pres. Ronald Reagan, at the Brandenburg Gate, told Mr. Gorbachev to Tear Down This Wall. Reagan early and often promoted liberty, American exceptionalism, and human rights. All those who escaped Communism by hidden secret compartments in cars, or by tunnel, or by hot-air balloon, or in fantastic motorized water packs, and all those who died trying, had a friend in Ronald Reagan and the American people, including, previously, Pres. John F. Kennedy. From the Berlin airlift to spiritual uplift, great American leaders have always resolutely stood up for freedom.

Until now. Mr. Obama came to Berlin in 2008, while campaigning, and has continued to preen for foreign approval by apologizing around the globe for the United States. But this year, the celebrations will take place without him.

Berlin, 2009. Celebration of liberty and America’s heroic leaders. Mr. Obama, apparently this is not your place. President Reagan, meanwhile, will now have an exhibit dedicated to his leadership at the Checkpoint Charlie Museum.

— Larry Greenfield is fellow in American studies at the Claremont Institute and executive director of the Reagan Legacy Foundation.

ALLEN C. GUELZO

Presidents of the United States cannot be expected to show up for every anniversary, especially if the anniversary requires major intercontinental travel, and is really someone else’s party (in this case, Germany’s). And yet there is something odd in Mr. Obama’s decision to take a pass on the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The wall was, after all, the greatest symbolic gesture of contempt for freedom ever constructed. And even if it was, strictly speaking, a German problem, the wall was really the “dare mark” that separated the United States and the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War. At worst, Mr. Obama invites the shrillest voices to conclude that, in his view of the world, the Cold War was nothing more than right-wing paranoia. The United States was much less the champion of freedom, the Soviet Union much less the ogre of oppression, and militant Communism much more harmless, than the Goldwaters and Strangeloves made them out to be. So, not enough was at stake in building and then destroying the wall to justify a presidential presence at the anniversary.

But in a more modulated tone, Mr. Obama’s absence will suggest that foreign affairs are really not matters of urgency for him (unless they offer celebrity moments), and that the community-organizing of American life trumps this paranoia about terrorism, war, and international power. If al-Qaeda and the Taliban are really only “distractions,” and not the threats to life and limb George W. Bush believed they were, then we should not be surprised that celebrating the end of Communism is so low a priority. Perhaps we should not be surprised, either, that Mr. Obama would prefer not to draw attention to the anniversary of an event that a conservative Republican did so much to cause.

Allen C. Guelzo is Henry R. Luce professor of the Civil War era and director of the Civil War Era Studies Program at Gettysburg College.


PAUL KENGOR

Obviously, this is an outrage. There’s no good excuse for it, even as Obama’s disciples grasp for one.

First, this is what we ought to expect from a president whose mentor was Frank Marshall Davis and who, in the 1980s, when President Reagan was seeking to breach the Berlin Wall, was being educated by — and chose to “hang with” — what he himself acknowledged were “Marxist professors.” Obama was raised, nurtured, and educated by what Whittaker Chambers — and Ronald Reagan quoting Chambers — dubbed the wrong side of history. By not going to Berlin, Obama is once again choosing the wrong side of history.

Second, with all that said, I’m personally not disappointed by Obama. Barack Obama is who he is. I’m disappointed by the American public, which elected a leader who thinks this way.

Ronald Reagan went to the Berlin Wall. He went there and demanded it be torn down. It was. And now, today, Ronald Reagan rolls over in his grave.

— Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College. His recent books include The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism.

DANIEL PIPES

How big a deal is it that the president won’t be going to Germany to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall? Let us meditate briefly on Obama and the year 1989.

In one of the first interviews of his fledgling presidency, on Jan. 27, 2009, Obama informed the audience of an Arabic-language television channel that he hoped to restore “the same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago.”

How interesting that Obama praised 1989 as a time of exemplary U.S.-Muslim relations, and not the year of the Berlin Wall’s collapse. It was an undistinguished year for U.S.-Muslim relations, but it was before the U.S. government sought to democratize the region. It was when Washington still focused on getting along with kings, presidents, emirs, and other autocrats. Obama’s phrasing, Fouad Ajami points out, signals “a return to Realpolitik and business-as-usual” in relations with Muslims.

The president’s decision to skip the celebrations in Berlin, thus, fits a larger pattern of nostalgia for the good old days before George W. Bush’s “freedom agenda” and its inconvenient tensions with dictators.

Daniel Pipes is director of the Middle East Forum and Taube distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University.

PETER ROBINSON

The Cold War was the defining struggle of the second half of the 20th century — a clash of beliefs about God, man, government, and economics so utterly basic, so primal, that it stands in comparison with the Persian Wars or the long conflict between Rome and Carthage. “My view of the Cold War is simple,” Ronald Reagan once famously explained. “We win, and they lose.” And with the fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago on Monday, that is just how it turned out. Liberty vanquished tyranny.

Barack Obama? He has no idea. No idea at all.

— Peter Robinson is a fellow at the Hoover Institution and author of How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life.

MICHAEL RUBIN

Symbolism is incredibly important. When Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an “Evil Empire,” the reverberations within the East Bloc went far beyond what Reagan’s own supporters realized. Likewise, the moral clarity evident in Reagan standing before the Berlin Wall and declaring, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” did as much as tens of millions of dollars poured into influence operations aimed at the Soviet bloc. Nor can anyone forget the symbolism of East Germans, with hand and hammer, tearing down that symbol of oppression.

Alas, Pres. Barack Obama’s decision not to celebrate one of the seminal events of the 20th century — an episode that illustrates the victory of freedom over totalitarianism and peace through strength — is also replete with symbolism. Just as Reagan’s advisers had no idea just how much his rhetoric would reverberate, I’m afraid that Obama does not understand how important his refusal to attend commemoration events will be, not only to those still suffering under the yoke of oppression, but also to adversaries who see American isolation and weakness as a phenomenon to be exploited.

Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is a senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School.

DAVID SATTER

President Obama’s decision to skip the ceremonies marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall has worrying implications for the war in Afghanistan. Although Obama may not be aware of it, Communism and political Islam are basically the same. One pretends to be a perfect science, the other religious. But each divided the world into the holy and the profane. Each believed itself in possession of absolute truth and, deifying itself, attempted to impose its deranged interpretation of reality on the world by force.

The fall of Communism showed that fanatics are defeated by the collapse of their ideology. This lesson is critical to our success in Afghanistan. If we discredit fanatical Islam, we win. If it discredits us, we lose. It was therefore critically important for Obama to use the opportunity of the Berlin Wall commemoration to explain to the world and, in particular, the Muslim world, why we are fighting. The fact that he did not seize this opportunity indicates that he may not know. Clausewitz wrote that in war the first priority of a statesman or commander is to understand what kind of war he is fighting. Obama is involved in an ideological war. If he does not understand that, it will be his tragedy — and ours.

— David Satter is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. His latest book is Darkness at Dawn: The Rise of the Russian Criminal State.

PAUL J. SAUNDERS

Is it a big deal that Barack Obama has not gone to Germany for the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall? Not really. German chancellor Angela Merkel was received quite well by the president and the Congress this week, and the vice president visited some of 1989’s other top beneficiaries — Poland, Romania, and the Czech Republic — just a few weeks ago. Though that trip was clearly intended to repair strained ties with Warsaw and Prague after the administration’s poor handling of missile defense, the White House explicitly linked it to the 1989 anniversary.

Nevertheless, the president is largely himself to blame for the über-angst about his non-visit to Germany. The anxiety is a clear consequence of concern that notwithstanding his campaign rhetoric about rebuilding relations with America’s allies, when faced with his first significant European security decision, Mr. Obama unilaterally revised a NATO agreement on missile defense without consulting the host countries, other key nations, or NATO as an institution. President Obama doesn’t seem to have much emotional attachment to 1989 or to Central Europe, which isn’t a crime. But if he doesn’t change his approach to working with America’s treaty partners, we might all share the punishment.

— Paul J. Saunders is the executive director of the Nixon Center and the associate publisher of The National Interest.


ANDREW STUTTAFORD

Am I that worried that Obama has chosen not to go to Berlin for the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Wall? Not that much, and I’m sure the Germans will quickly get over any disappointment they may feel. After all, messiahs have a habit of not showing up when expected. That said, I couldn’t help but be amused by the fact that (as Rich Lowry has observed) Obama was prepared to go to Berlin when it was all about Obama. The most symbolically charged moment in the collapse of Communism, by contrast, doesn’t appear to count for quite so much. Oh well.

I worry more over the thought that (even if accidentally) Obama’s decision is a reflection of a wider trend in which the story of Soviet Communism — its rise, its crimes, its failures, and its eventual fall — is being allowed to slide into a memory hole that is (thankfully) unimaginable in the case of the rise, crimes, failures, and eventual fall of the Third Reich. To the extent, therefore, that Obama’s absence wastes a potential (dread phrase) “teachable moment,” it’s a pity.


— Andrew Stuttaford is a contributing editor of National Review Online.


GEORGE WEIGEL

It’s a very big deal, because the president’s absence bespeaks a woodenheadeness about the history of our times: a woodenheadness likely influenced by the classic left-liberal notion that the Cold War was just an action-reaction cycle between two “great powers” (“two scorpions in a bottle,” as a Jimmy Carter appointee notoriously put it), not a moral contest for the human future between imperfect democracies and pluperfect dictatorships.

There have been few moments in modern history when the good guys won, cleanly, and without mass violence; Americans had a large role in creating the conditions for the possibility of that. The fall of the Wall was the symbolic centerpiece of the Revolution of 1989 — it’s shameful and, frankly, embarrassing that an American president is not in Berlin to celebrate the implosion of the worst tyranny in human history. But it’s hardly surprising, given the president’s performance before Russian students earlier this year.

The politics of national self-deprecation — moral blindness wrapped in moral sanctimony — continues.

— George Weigel is distinguished senior fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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