The Magazine

Ich bin ein Big Talker

Jul 1, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 40 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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On June 19, President Barack Obama delivered a lengthy speech in Berlin, in front of the Brandenburg Gate. The shades of John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan surely wept.

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Half a century ago, President Kennedy declared, “All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words ‘Ich bin ein Berliner!’ ” A quarter-century ago, President Reagan challenged the general secretary of the Soviet Union: “Come here to this gate. Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate. Mr. Gorbachev​—​Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” President Obama, by contrast, declared nothing notable and challenged no one powerful. With the Berlin Wall down and the Cold War won, the president of
the United States talked at length and had nothing to say.

It would be too harsh, perhaps, to say that Obama’s remarks served only to ratify the judgment rendered the week before by Bill Clinton: that President Obama is pretty much “a total wuss.” It wouldn’t be too harsh to say of Obama’s foreign policy what Winston Churchill said in 1936 about the Stanley Baldwin government: He is “decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent.”

To be fair, there were times when President Obama sounded resolute. He said, for example, that “the struggle for freedom and security and human dignity​—​that struggle goes on. And I’ve come here, to this city of hope, because the tests of our time demand the same fighting spirit that defined Berlin a half-century ago.”

But nowhere in Obama’s speech does he actually demonstrate the fighting spirit he says the times demand. Nowhere does he cite an actual place where it is just and necessary that we fight, or even one where it has been just and necessary that we have fought. Nowhere does he praise those who actually have fought on our behalf. In Obama’s world, the “struggle for freedom and security and human dignity” is more like a group hug. It’s not really a struggle against anybody. Obama is for “extending a hand to those who reach for freedom.” But it’s a limp hand. And it never gets used as a fist against those who deny freedom.

So Syria is never mentioned by Obama. Iran is mentioned once: “We can forge a new international framework for peaceful nuclear power, and reject the nuclear weaponization that North Korea and Iran may be seeking.” The nuclear weaponization that North Korea and Iran may be seeking? Isn’t North Korea past the “may be seeking” stage? And Iran? In any case, there was no pledge in Berlin by Obama that he would act to prevent Iran from getting such weapons.

Indeed, there was virtually no mention of military action or of keeping our military strong enough to deal with the world as it is. What Obama did say is that while we have been at war for over a decade, the good news is “the Iraq war is now over. The Afghan war is coming to an end.” You might note that the Afghan war won’t come to an end just because we choose to stop fighting in it. You might note that there is more conflict in Iraq today than there was before the Iraq war “was over,” when we had won it and still had troops there to enforce the peace. But if you note that, then you have failed to understand that “we must move beyond a mindset of perpetual war.”

How nice it must be to believe in mind over matter, and in mindsets over reality. We can be exhorted to move beyond a mindset, but there is a reality out there, and we’re being mugged by it. Barack Obama is remarkably impervious to this. Or perhaps he’s simply one of those liberals who, when mugged by reality, has no interest in pressing charges. Pressing charges would mean seeking victory. Needless to say, the word victory never appears in Obama’s Berlin speech.

After all, victory would mean one country or one set of countries—the free world, perhaps?—prevailing over others. But we should “care more about things than just our own self-comfort, about our own city, about our own country,” Obama said. He’s right that we should care about more than just our own country. But another president would have emphasized that it’s fine to begin by caring about and struggling on behalf of one’s own country.

Not Obama. He’s a citizen of the world: “For we are not only citizens of America or Germany​—​we are also citizens of the world.” He talks abstractly to the world and about the world. He talks, and talks, and talks some more .  .  . as the world burns around him. And around us.

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