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Obama’s Moment

It was nearing dusk when Sen. Barack Obama stepped off the stage in Berlin’s Tiergarten Park on Thursday, having officially transformed himself from a perceived international neophyte to a statesman and a leader, a man of the world.

Obama’s words before the 200,000 assembled were clearly meant as more than casual remarks or campaign rhetoric. Instead, it was the junior senator from Illinois’ formal declaration that he was not only ready, but able, to lead and to heal the wounds of the Bush administration’s international policies and reassert America’s presence as the true leader of the free countries of the Earth.

"I come to Berlin as so many of my countrymen have come before," Obama said, bathed in the fading sunlight, near the beginning of his speech. "Tonight, I speak to you not as a candidate for president, but as a citizen -– a proud citizen of the United States, and a fellow citizen of the world."

(Matt Mahurin)
(Matt Mahurin)

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

He had come to to Germany as a conquering hero, not only because of who he was but who he was not. There’s no doubt that with the U.S. occupation of Iraq in 2003, the bonds between this country and the citizens of its allied countries were not only frayed but burned beyond recognition. In a few years, President George W. Bush did what many thought was not only improbable, but impossible — transform the image of America from the world’s beacon into its bully. Now a man who has promised the American people that he would restore the idea that is America had come to Europe to do the same.

But his speech was more than just a reassurance to those abroad that things in an administration of the presumed Democratic nominee would be better. At home he was engaged in a bitter campaign with Sen. John McCain for the general election. For months now, McCain dismissed Obama as a "naive" 46-year-old kid who simply didn’t understand, who couldn’t understand, how the larger world worked.

But in the past week Obama had met with troops and generals and leaders in Afghanistan and Iraq and Israel and Jordan. Now he was in Germany giving a speech that served as physical proof to those watching at home in the United States that he got it, that he understood how bad things had gotten and how they could be good again.

So many things could have gone wrong. Obama could have mispronounced a name or misstated a fact. He could have slipped up while meeting elected officials of countries or shown his supposed lack of world experience–despite the fact he had gone to school in Indonesia and traveled widely across the world. Instead, as in the primaries and the early stages of the general contest, he was on message, seamless in delivery.

"He simply hasn’t made mistakes," said Caroline Wadhams, senior policy analyst for national security at American Progress, a liberal think tank. "He’s been able to say what he’s supposed to be saying."

Now Obama had come to the most appropriate city to deliver his offical international coming-out speech–Berlin. That’s because, in many ways Berlin represents the best, most optimistic use of American power and foreign policy. Having brought the city, and the Nazi regime, to rubble during the last days of World War II, it was the United States, under President Harry S. Truman and his secretary of state, Gen. George C. Marshall, who brought the city back to life. In the darkest days of the Cold War, when the Soviet Empire tried to bring the city to its knees with the Berlin Brigade, it was the Western allies, led by the United States, who ran circles around the Soviets with the Berlin Airlift.

"What Germany evokes is the image not just of American strength but of American benevolence and European gratitude," said Peter Beinert, former editor of The New Republic who is now senior fellow for U.S. foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. "There’s no other city that evokes that as clearly. It’s was a natural place for him to go."

Image has not been found. URL: /files/washingtonindependent/obamas-moment/obama-german-crowd.jpg

Sen. Barack Obama (campaign photo)

Acknowledging this, Obama said: "Sixty years after the airlift, we are called upon again. History has led us to a new crossroad, with new promise and new peril. When you, the German people, tore down that wall – a wall that divided East and West; freedom and tyranny; fear and hope -– walls came tumbling down around the world. From Kiev to Cape Town, prison camps were closed, and the doors of democracy were opened. Markets opened too, and the spread of information and technology reduced barriers to opportunity and prosperity. While the 20th century taught us that we share a common destiny, the 21st has revealed a world more intertwined than at any time in human history.

"The fall of the Berlin Wall brought new hope," Obama said. "But that very closeness has given rise to new dangers – dangers that cannot be contained within the borders of a country or by the distance of an ocean."

Because of the city’s symbolic importance, Berlin has served as the grandest of stages for American leaders. Two years after the Berlin Wall went up, President John F. Kennedy came to the city, where he spoke before the Brandenburg Gate. It was here where Kennedy spoke to the world about the great flaws of Communism, before five-sixths of the city’s citizens, famously declaring "Ich bin ein Berliner." It was here, in 1987, at that same gate, with the Soviet empire on life support, that President Ronald Reagan took a great shot at his Soviet counterpart, saying, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"

Both moments were of potent historic importance. Kennedy’s speech would help crystallize U.S. foreign policy for the next 30 years. Reagan’s speech will be remembered as a signal to the world that the Cold War, the hard and bitter peace that Kennedy spoke of in his own inaugural in 1961, was nearing its end.

"People of the world – look at Berlin!" Obama said. "Look at Berlin, where Germans and Americans learned to work together and trust each other less than three years after facing each other on the field of battle. Look at Berlin, where the determination of a people met the generosity of the Marshall Plan and created a German miracle; where a victory over tyranny gave rise to NATO, the greatest alliance ever formed to defend our common security. Look at Berlin, where the bullet holes in the buildings and the somber stones and pillars near the Brandenburg Gate insist that we never forget our common humanity."

Going further, Obama said: "Yes, there have been differences between America and Europe. No doubt, there will be differences in the future. But the burdens of global citizenship continue to bind us together. A change of leadership in Washington will not lift this burden. In this new century, Americans and Europeans alike will be required to do more – not less. Partnership and cooperation among nations is not a choice; it is the one way, the only way, to protect our common security and advance our common humanity."

But Obama said these words not as a president, but as a man who aspires to be. Throughout his travels abroad, the intense, immense media attention toward Obama has become fodder for "The Daily Show" and a source of ire for the McCain campaign. While McCain was left on the North American continent with a small press corps trailing him through New Hampshire and Ohio and Pennsylvania, it seemed like every heavyweight for every national news source followed Obama to the ends of the Earth.

Indeed one couldn’t help but chuckle when McCain’s campaign spokesman Tucker Bounds, following Obama’s speech, issued a statement: "While Barack Obama took a premature victory lap today in the heart of Berlin, proclaiming himself a ‘citizen of the world,’ John McCain continued to make his case to the American citizens who will decide this election. Barack Obama offered eloquent praise for this country, but the contrast is clear. John McCain has dedicated his life to serving, improving and protecting America. Barack Obama spent an afternoon talking about it."

However, Obama needed to make this speech in this place. He needed to tell the world not only his plans for a new American foreign policy but speak to how he would address problems across the globe, in places where international action is still required, like Afghanistan. He needed to show his understanding of the complexities of the fight against terrorism and that he grasped the regional threat of Iran.

He needed to do so not only for the sake of his campaign, but for the creation of a fundamental understanding of the policy differences between the two candidates in perhaps the most important election in living memory.

"People of Berlin – and people of the world – the scale of our challenge is great," Obama concluded. "The road ahead will be long. But I come before you to say that we are heirs to a struggle for freedom. We are a people of improbable hope. With an eye toward the future, with resolve in our hearts, let us remember this history, and answer our destiny, and remake the world once again."

Soon Obama will be back campaigning in the United States. He will again engage in verbal jabs with McCain over education and energy and taxes and the war in Iraq. But should he win on Nov. 4, this much will be clear: July 24 was a pivotal moment in the course of his campaign. It was more than just a speech. It was his moment.

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