Sunday, July 20, 2008

Obama at the Hate

In the Times, Christoph Peters explores some of the issues surrounding a possible appearance by Barack Obama at the Brandenburg Gate, the chief of which is push-back from Germany’s “ever-meddling” Chancellor, Angela Merkel.

Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, has made known her displeasure at the possibility that Barack Obama might use an appearance before the Brandenburg Gate here to present himself to the world as a politician of balance and integrity. Such an event would doubtless be heavy with symbolism as well as heavily attended, and one should always be wary meddling in another nation’s elections.

Yet Chancellor Merkel’s reaction seems quite odd when you consider that in 2003 she herself, as the new and internationally all-but-unknown leader of the German opposition, sought to take her place on the world stage — and scored a public relations coup — by writing an article for The Washington Post in which she assured George W. Bush of her support for the Iraq war.

As a result of that article, she was sharply criticized in Germany, where she was seen to have violated political etiquette. We can only speculate about her reasoning, both in 2003 and now. However, her current position can have nothing to do with a desire to remain neutral in the American presidential campaign. Quite the contrary: Apart from the fact that conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic have closer ties with one another than with the liberal forces in their respective countries, the chancellor seems to feel an instinctive sympathy, perhaps rooted in her having grown up in East Germany, for such staunchly right-wing and rather gruff figures of American politics as George W. Bush and John McCain.

Many politicians in former Eastern bloc countries share this sympathy. The Iron Curtain, they feel, was not torn apart by attempts at reconciliation and rapprochement like the ones by Richard Nixon and Willy Brandt in the early 1970s, and most certainly not by the values propagated by the 1968 protest movement, but by the policy and rhetoric of strength with which Ronald Reagan confronted the Soviet Union. The fear of being threatened by the “evil empire” still runs deep in those who lived under Soviet domination, and that fear may well be connected with a longing for the “strong, good” leader who will provide protection.

Without this psychological explanation, Ms. Merkel’s public displeasure at the chance that the very popular Mr. Obama might make an appearance in Berlin is as hard to fathom now as her support for President Bush and his Iraq war was in 2003, when the overwhelming majority of Germans opposed the invasion.

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