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Obama’s Rhetoric Then and Now

Five years ago, Barack Obama spoke to 200,000 people in Berlin, presenting himself as a “citizen of the world,” noting he didn’t “look like the Americans who’ve previously spoken” there, with a speech that failed to mention the historic Berlin addresses of his predecessors–John F. Kennedy (“Ich bin ein Berliner”) and Ronald Reagan (“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”). The signature line in 2008 was: “People of Berlin–people of the world–this is our moment. This is our time.” It was rhetoric that made people on two continents swoon back then.

In 2008, Obama regaled the crowd with his agenda for the future: “defeat the Taliban … work with Russia … seek a partnership that extends across this entire continent … answer the call for a new dawn in the Middle East … send a direct message to Iran … support the Lebanese who marched and bled for democracy …” and on and on. Five years later, the speech reads like a list of things not accomplished: the Taliban were not defeated; the Russian reset failed; Iran ignored the direct message; Hezbollah hijacked the Lebanese democracy; the “new dawn” in the Middle East saw a U.S. ally removed in Egypt (with U.S. assistance), a U.S. ambassador murdered in Libya (with no U.S. response), a U.S. stance in Syria that amounted to mere rhetoric; and on and on.

The 2013 Berlin speech consisted of warmed-over citizen-of-the-world rhetoric, poorly delivered, to a crowd 97 percent smaller than in 2008. The speech was replete with references to the Berlin Wall, but Obama again failed to acknowledge Reagan’s historic address. He proffered a historical account from which the American president’s contribution was absent (it was “citizens who choose whether to be defined by a wall, or whether to tear it down”). He intoned that since now “we face no concrete walls,” the new task involves less tangible ones: “as long as walls exist in our hearts to separate us from those who don’t look like us, or think like us, or worship as we do, then we’re going to have to work harder, together, to bring those walls of division down.”

The evening before the speech, deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes briefed the press on it. He told reporters its “historical context” was important; it would be given at the “place where U.S. Presidents have gone to talk about the role of the free world essentially, whether it was President Kennedy or President Reagan standing at the Brandenburg Gate,” and that the Gate, “given its history of U.S. Presidents — President Reagan, President Clinton — speaking there … is an appropriate place to do the speech.” In the speech, however, Obama mentioned only JFK. For some reason, he chose not to mention his other two predecessors.

Kennedy and Reagan’s Berlin speeches were both aimed at a specific threat–the one posed by the Soviet Union. In 2013, the countries that arguably constitute the similar strategic challenge are Iran and North Korea (once considered part of an “axis of evil”–tyrannical regimes, seeking nuclear weapons, explicitly threatening the U.S. and its allies). Obama’s 2013 speech devoted one sentence to that subject. He asserted “we can forge a new international framework for peaceful nuclear power, and reject the nuclear weaponization that North Korea and Iran may be seeking.”

One suspects the “new international framework” is another Obama pipe dream, and that the key challenge is to enforce the existing one. But “rejecting” the Iranian and North Korean violations is going to take more than rhetoric.  


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