Paul Rahe: Obama’s gestures, part 4

Hillsdale College Professor Paul Rahe writes on the celebration of the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall today from which President Obama has chosen to be absent:

Today marks the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. To those in my generation, this seemed an almost miraculous event. Berlin had long been the flashpoint in East-West relations.
It was with regard to Berlin that Josef Stalin first tested our resolve, breaking the Four-Power agreements with regard to that city, which was located deep in the Soviet Zone of occupied Germany, and cutting off access from the West by road and rail.
Our response, under Harry Truman, was the Berlin Airlift, which delivered food and other supplies by air to those isolated within the American, British, and French Zones in that city. This was the first clear, undoubted sign that we would not stand idly by while the Soviet Union took over western Europe. Its historic importance cannot be overstated.
The second Berlin Crisis took place in August, 1961 when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and his Easter German counterpart Walter Ulbricht took up a suggestion publicly floated by Senator J. William Fulbright, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (and privately supported by John F. Kennedy) and built the Berlin Wall.
This, too, was a breach of the Four-Power agreement, which specified that Berlin be an open city. Khrushchev and Ulbricht built the wall because it had become the practice for young people in East Germany, especially those with marketable skills, to travel to East Berlin, cross over to the West, and fly on to West Germany to start a new life. One consequence was that, prior to August, 1961, East Germany was not economically viable.
J. William Fulbright and some in the Kennedy administration entertained hopes not unlike those entertained by the Obama administration with regard to Iran. If the Russians found themselves unthreatened in Eastern Europe, they reasoned, they would relax and be more amenable to working out a modus vivendi with the West.
They soon learned that they had blundered — for our failure to send in the bulldozers to knock down the wall, which Harry Truman urged that we do, led to a crisis of confidence within the western alliance, and it was this crisis that occasioned John Kennedy’s dramatic flight to Berlin and the speech in which he said, “Ich bin ein Berliner.” It did not matter that this meant, in German, “I am a jelly donut.” No one expected linguistic competence from an American. Everyone understood that he meant to say, “Ich bin Berliner: I am a Berliner.”
It would be a while, however, before the Kennedy administration would recognize the full consequences of its display of weakness. As a consequence of such foolishness, the United States would soon be faced with the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Obama administration can expect to be rewarded in a similar fashion by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
In the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Soviet Union, chastened, gave up its policy of brinksmanship and sought by indirect means to bring about the collapse of the West. The event that took place twenty years ago signaled the fact that we had outlasted the Soviets.
We have much to be proud of. Never in human history has there been a sustained conflict over four decades between two great power blocs in which no great war took place and one of the two won a decisive victory resulting in the dismantlement of the rival alliance and even the dismantlement of the country that led it. We made mistakes in the course of the Cold War, but — despite partisan divisions — we managed to maintain a more or less consistent policy of containment and, after a time, strategic engagement. We — and the world — owe a great debt to the Cold War presidents: especially, to Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan, who were the most stalwart. This was arguably America’s finest hour.
It is, I think, significant that Barack Obama chose not to join the other heads of state and heads of government who have gathered in Berlin today to celebrate what was a remarkable and blessed event.
Back in June, in two separate posts on Power Line – here and here — I drew attention to our current president’s propensity for communicating different messages to different audiences by means of gestures of one kind or another. Here is what I then wrote:

Barack Obama has a history of belittling his adversaries [by indirection]. In April, 2008, he was caught on tape during a debate with Hillary Clinton, rubbing his hand across the right side of his face and extending his middle finger in an obscene gesture that many in the audience could see it but she could not, and when this provoked laughter on the part of his supporters he responded with a knowing smile. Later, after accepting his party’s nomination, he did precisely the same thing during a debate with John McCain; and, after Sarah Palin remarked at the Republican National Convention that the only difference between a pit bull and a soccer mom was lipstick, he observed at a rally that a pig with lipstick is still a pig. Again, many in the audience caught the dig and they, too, were rewarded with a knowing smile.
Obama is, in fact, a master of the insulting gesture. There is no other construction that one can put on his conduct towards Gordon Brown when the British prime minister paid him a visit shortly after his inauguration. First, in an ostentatious manner, he returned to the British embassy a bust of Winston Churchill that had been loaned to his predecessor. Then, when Brown presented him with a pen made from timber used in a British ship once involved in putting down the slave trade, he gave him in return a stack of movies on DVD which could not be played on machines sold in Europe.
Were Obama a yokel, one might be able to explain this away. But a yokel he is not, and there are State Department protocol officers who are highly sensitive to the proprieties. It is no accident that, at about the same time, the White House press secretary intimated in the presence of members of the British press that there was no special relationship between the United States and Great Britain. Obama’s gesture was a calculated insult–meant to be understood only by those to whom it was directed.
If we are to comprehend what is going on, we must pay close attention not only to what Obama says but to what he conveys in other ways. His tone is nearly always moderate but what he hints at and what he intimates by way of body language often convey the opposite Witness his warm embrace of Hugo Chavez. Behind the thin veneer of politeness, there is, I suspect, something ugly lurking. In the first of the autobiographies that he claims to have written, Barack Obama frequently speaks of himself as being in the grips of rage. We would do well to take him at his word. If we are to stop him from doing great damage to this country and to our friends and allies, we must take every opportunity that comes our way to unmask the man.

In a later post, which can be found here, I added:

We now know – thanks to events in the Honduras – the meaning of Obama’s gesture with respect to the Venezuelan dictator, and I would suggest that we must regard in a similar light the timing of Obama’s announcement of his administration’s shift in policy regarding missile-defence in Europe. For it can hardly be an accident that he chose the seventieth anniversary of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Poland as the occasion.
We must keep in mind the fact that Obama is not a yokel and that the State Department is there to prevent an ill-informed president from unnecessarily stepping on toes. What happened last Thursday was a deliberate gesture. It was aimed at our allies in eastern Europe and at Russia, and it was recognized as such in Poland, the Czech republic, and Russia. Vladimir Putin spoke of Obama’s decision as a courageous act. Our friends in eastern Europe would not have used that adjective. A signal has been given, and they know the meaning.
We are living in a dangerous time. It seems highly unlikely that Barack Obama will get his way in domestic affairs. The Democrats may control Congress, but they now fear a rout in 2010, and they are likely to tred with caution from now on. In foreign affairs, however, presidents have a relatively free hand, and this president has ample time to do damage to a country that, there is reason to suspect, he deeply hates.

President Obama chose not to go to Berlin for a reason. Once again, he is signaling that his administration is in the process of turning its back on our erstwhile allies in Europe. He has thus far persistently made it his practice to embrace our enemies and to stiff our friends. We should not for a moment underestimate the significance of this. It means that he believes our policy in the Cold War wrong-headed, and it means that he intends to line us up now with the likes of Hugo Chavez, Vladimir Putin, Fidel Castro, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It is by no means an accident that the man in the State Department now in charge of our policy towards Iran is on the board of Iran’s main front-organization in the United States. Ed Lasky’s report regarding this matter is well worth reading.
Addendum: There is an exceptionally good discussion of the Kennedy administration and the building of the Berlin Wall in “Weak will, high wall” by Donald Kagan, in the current issue of The New Criterion.

Paul A. Rahe holds the Charles O. Lee and Louise K. Lee Chair in the Western Heritage at Hillsdale College. He is the author, most recently, of Montesquieu and the Logic of Liberty: War, Religion, Commerce, Climate, Terrain, Technology, Uneasiness of Mind, the Spirit of Political Vigilance, and the Foundations of the Modern Republic and of Soft Despotism, Democracy’s Drift: Montesquieu, Rousseau, Tocqueville, and the Modern Prospect.

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