Obama Wows Them in Europe

Cheering throngs in Berlin but also some doubts he can live up to the great expectations.

US Democratic presidential hopeful, Barack Obama, seen on large TV screens, makes a speech in front of the Victory Column in Berlin. Obama warned America could not quell violence in Afghanistan alone, and called on Europe for more troops and funding to defeat the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.
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In terms of military cooperation, the Dutch have shown eagerness (some 50 percent to 60 percent in recent polls) to withdraw their more than 1,600 troops from Afghanistan. While Obama has asked NATO allies to beef up the American-led fight against the Taliban, other European countries, like the Netherlands, are wary. "I hope Obama will be president and not that man who is 72 and looks like a grandfather that should be at home telling stories," said B. J. Vollaard, 38, of the Netherlands, referring to McCain.

But by promising to draw down U.S. forces in Iraq and shift America's military emphasis to Afghanistan, Obama has raised questions among the Dutch and others about the burdens their own militaries face in the region. "Obama shouldn't rattle the cage about Germany doing more in Afghanistan. Barack's telling them they have to fight, and they don't want to hear that," said Klaus Dueber, a U.S. Army veteran who has lived in Germany the past 15 years.

Indeed, pressing Germany and other NATO allies to recognize their key role in helping to defeat the Taliban was a carefully crafted cornerstone of Obama's speech. While acknowledging that America had made mistakes and that "on both sides of the Atlantic we have drifted apart," Obama called for a "sustained sacrifice" from allies "to defeat terror and dry up the well that supports it."

Perhaps most important was the olive branch he held out to Muslims, exhorting the West "to stand with the vast majority of Muslims who reject the extremism that leads to hate instead of hope. We have too much at stake to turn back now."

There was a festive atmosphere here, sort of an Obamafest. People lined up and basked in the afternoon sun with beer and sausages five hours beforehand. The audience included a large number of Americans, a population that has grown to at least 15,000 in the capital. After live reggae and rock performances prepped the senator's arrival, Obama drew immediate laughs for his bad pronunciation of the names of both Chancellor Angela Merkel and Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit. There were later snickers when he uttered, "I love America," but apart from that, it was all applause, especially when Obama talked about defusing the global nuclear threat, fighting climate change with "the same seriousness of purpose as your nation," and tearing down walls. "The walls between the countries with the most and those with the least cannot stand. The walls between races and tribes, natives and immigrants, Christians and Muslims and Jews cannot stand," he said to rave approval.

Despite the speech's success, it's still debatable how much Obama's highflying rhetoric and optimistic tone resonated with the European crowd.

His fired-up plea to citizens to rise and meet the challenges ahead sounded somewhat vague and out of place spoken to a German audience well aware of its tragic past. "Some Germans felt there was too much emotion, too much pathos, with nothing new at the end of the day—that the Americans are going to act in their own interest regardless of any language they use," said Andrew Denison of Transatlantic Networks, a think tank in Bonn.

What impressed Denison and many Germans, however, was Obama's use of the Berlin airlift and the fall of the Wall as a metaphor for the successful unity America and Europe have shown in confronting challenges and defeating enemies past and present. Shaping his speech around the 60th anniversary of the famous airlift that allowed half of Berlin to remain part of the Western free world, Obama's eloquence caused some Germans to "get goose pimples."

"I was touched by the way he spoke about Berlin and the German situation—it's not so much what he said but how he said it. For a month everyone has been talking about the [60th anniversary of the] airlift, but Barack has an authentic way of speaking so that you believe he really believes what he is saying," said Heike Kaehler, a translator in Berlin.

It was that same freshness of tone that struck a deep chord with Marin Najica, an editor at the daily Berliner Zeitung. "I never heard a German politician talk about defending the rights of Zimbabwean voters and speak so openly about issues from Darfur to Afghanistan to climate change," he said. "It was like he was saying, 'This is my agenda, this is the agenda of the 21st century.' He really made his point that sacrifices from all sides are necessary."