On a November evening back in 1989, it was impossible to take one’s eyes from the television screen. There it was, the seemingly impossible – the Berlin Wall falling as East Germans, intoxicated by the promise of freedom, scaled its once-forbidding face. Americans heard the singing, saw strangers singing, crying and embracing, and realized they were witnessing history. The end of the Cold War was at hand, and the United States – and the forces of freedom – were victorious.
The fall of the Berlin Wall was part of a chain reaction, as repressive Soviet-satellite dictatorships in Hungary, East Germany, Romania, Czechoslavakia and Poland fell. Even a year or two earlier, no one would have foreseen the rapidity and thoroughness of the Iron Curtain’s disintegration. It marked a glorious moment in the history of the world, when liberty replaced tyranny, and dictators yielded to democracy.
Next week, Germany will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s fall – recalling the peaceful events that sparked a new birth of freedom for a country that had been split in half, dividing family, friends and even the world since 1961. The commemorations will go forward, however, without America’s president.
Remarkably, President Obama, who could find time to fly to Copenhagen to lobby for Chicago’s Olympic bid, declined the invitation from German chancellor Angela Merkel to attend the festivities. That’s notwithstanding the central role that America played in the ultimate destruction of the Iron Curtain – and the bipartisan nature of its efforts, from the Berlin airlift to President Reagan’s famous exhortation to his Soviet counterpart to “tear down this wall!”
No one but the President and members of his inner circle know the real reason that President Obama has refused to go to Berlin. It’s hard not to suspect, however, that his reluctance springs both from a misplaced sensitivity to the feelings of our former Soviet adversaries – and worse yet, from a misguided sense of shame about America’s Cold War triumph.
Since his inauguration, after all, President Obama has bent over backward to appeal to America’s most virulent adversaries. He has listened without objection as a madman like Hugo Chavez excoriated the United States in the ugliest of ways. He’s handled American-hating Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with kid gloves. To curry favor with the Chinese, he’s stiff-armed the Dalai Lama. And in a complete inversion of President Ronald Reagan’s policies in the years leading up to the Berlin Wall’s fall, Obama has sought to please Russian president Putin by scrapping plans for a missile defense system in the former Soviet satellites of Poland and the Czech Republic. Given his manifest concern for the tender feelings of America’s adversaries, it’s not hard to imagine Obama shrinking from a celebration that he might feel they would interpret as American triumphalism.
That’s bad enough. But could it also be that the President himself doesn’t truly feel comfortable celebrating the end of the Cold War? After all, America’s victory marked a high-water mark for its prestige and power in the world, comparable only to its status in the wake of World War II. A president who has deemed it necessary to apologize repeatedly to the world for our country’s shortcomings before he assumed office – and who seems far more comfortable pointing out America’s faults than extolling its virtues – may not necessarily recall those days with particular fondness. And surely a man who has insisted to the assembled United Nations that “No one nation can . . . dominate another nation” is bound to be profoundly uncomfortable at an event symbolizing Eastern Europe’s collective repudiation of Soviet domination.
But however glibly President Obama justifies his refusal to go to Berlin – and however real his discomfort about the celebration there – it’s a mistake. It’s not just a political one, though it is that. After all, visiting Berlin would have offered the President the opportunity to explain America’s ideals – a nice counterbalance to his tendency to apologize for its actions. It would likewise have provided the President with a way to showcase his commitment to democracy – a much-needed contrast to his refusal to support Iran’s pro-democracy protestors.
Most damning of all, Obama’s decision to stay away from the Berlin Wall celebration highlights the narrowness of the President’s historical understanding of America’s place, and his own. As Eastern Europe threw off the Soviet yoke, they looked to America the Beautiful – the “land of the free” and a “city on a hill” – for guidance and inspiration. And ultimately, whether he wants to or not, it’s the President’s job to understand the greatness of the country he leads – and to be willing publicly to embrace it.