Special report: Barack Obama in Berlin

The flow of people from the Brandenburg Gate to the Victory Column in the heart of Berlin seemed truly endless. On 24 July, up to 200,000 people came to Berlin’s central park, the Tiergarten, to hear a speech by U.S. presidential candidate Barack Obama. As with the “fan mile” for the European Cup, which had been in the same place on month earlier, there were jumbotrons alongside the countless beer and sausage stands.

The performance itself was surprisingly minimalist: a single speaker, without music or a warm-up speech, without huge posters as a backdrop. The theme of the 28-minute speech was … basically everything. Obama, went from the Berlin Airlift, of his illustrious predecessor Jack Kennedy, to religious conflicts, global warming to the threats of war against Iran.

At times, the speech sounded like something from the Cold War. It was about evil “communists who sought to extinguish the flame of freedom”, using the bogey men of yesterday to root for the military operations of today. Obama referred to a speech by West Berlin Mayor Ernst Reuter in September 1948 in which he appealed for help against the Soviet blockade. Then he succeeded, relatively easily, in changing the topic from the Cold War to so-called “war against terrorism”, according to the motto: “then and now we have to stand together against the evil from the east!”

The central message of the speech was clear: “Send more troops to Afghanistan!” Obama adeptly avoided a direct reference to the topic, but he spoke of the need for Europeans to “take on more responsibility” in Afghanistan. He spoke of the “heroin dealers on your streets” who are connected to the “Al-Qaeda terrorists on the Hindu Kush”. (But since opium cultivation has massively increased since the beginning of the occupation of Afghanistan, it’s debatable if this argument really speaks in favour of a continuation of the military operations.) Finally, he said, more or less directly: “The people of Afghanistan need our troops and your troops.”

Despite the clear demands for greater military engagement, many in the audience thought of Obama as a genuine opponent of the U.S. crusades of recent years.

But as a reporter for the New York Times said, most onlookers were “a little hazy on [Obamas] politics.” As evidence for this, he quoted a young woman who praised Obama: “He’s against the Iraq War … that’s the most important thing “(1). Every New York Times reporter knows that Obama has only promised a gradual troop withdrawal from Iraq – and then only to free up more troops for further wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries. Nevertheless, countless do-gooders in Germany seem to suffer from the misapprehension, that Obama somehow opposes the Iraq war. When he said, on the topic of Iraq, “this war must finally come to an end,” shouts of “O-BA-MA! O-BA-MA!” rung out.

To point out these contradictions, a number of activists protested in front of the event. Stefan, a U.S. activist who served in the Vietnam War and has protested against imperialist wars for 30 years, said: “There was never a U.S. government that I supported.” In his view, Obama’s speech consisted in nothing but empty phrases: “The only thing he didn’t say was: ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’.” Michael, a Trotskyist activist from Seattle, said in the direction of his countrymen: “They have to understand that elections are not the way to affect change in our country. ” (Other Americans present were noticeably less passionate. Cameron, who was selling huge Obama buttons on the side of the road, said: “I am a supporter of the Obama campaign, but I also have to pay the rent.”)

In the run-up, the organizers of the rally had prohibited any kind of posters or banners. A long way out from the stage was a barrier where there were security controls like in an airport. Anyone with political materials was harassed and driven off by private security people.

The mood among the majority of participants (at least the ones towards the back, who hadn’t waited for six hours in the sun) was more curiosity than hope. Many young people referred to Obama as a “lesser evil”, not as a “ray of hope”. But the German bourgeoisie are thrilled about the idea of a U.S. president who consults about the war plans of the might America with other big powers like Germany. The German capitalists hope to get a bigger say in world politics with the help of a President Obama (and the liberal wing of the U.S. bourgeoisie who stand behind him). For this reason, has the bourgeois press in Germany pushed this election rally constantly.

But it’s not only the German bosses who love Obama. The Left Party’s chairman Gregor Gysi gushed that Obama was ready “to approach other countries” – that he was “didn’t want to culturally dominate, but accept different cultures” (2). The Left Party leadership are not against imperialist wars per se, but only those which they consider “illegal” or particularly “aggressive”. With their eyes on a seat in government involvement at the federal level, the Mssrs. Government Socialists prove that they could support “legal” and “humanitarian” wars.

Even more shocking was an article in this month’s issue of “Rotdorn”, the magazine of the Left Youth-Solid in Berlin-Brandenburg, which proclaimed that Obama – as the Left Party – wants to pull U.S. troops out of Iraq, introduce a universal health care system and rely on diplomacy rather than war resolving Iran “with direct diplomacy and, where appropriate, international cooperation and economic sanctions” (3).

Any anti-war activist should know that such sanctions primarily hurt the mass of the population. The sanctions against Iraq, decided by the UN led to the deaths of well over a million Iraqis between 1990 and 2003 (4) – thus, they were much more destructive than the second Iraq War, which took place without the consent of the UN. Again pacifism, including the boundless devotion to the UN as an instrument of world peace, shows itself rather helpless against the growing wars in the world.

Instead of placing hopes in a “lesser evil” like Obama, we should get active against imperialist wars and show solidarity with the people in the affected countries who are struggling against the occupation forces. If the 200,000 Berliners had not gone to a semi-political fan mile in the Tierpark but rather on a militant anti-war demonstration, that would have been an important step in this direction.

Wladek Flakin, from the independent youth organisation REVOLUTION (http://www.onesolutionrevolution.org)

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