Is Obama a Berliner?

The U.S. president arrives in Germany with chill hanging over relations.

Is Obama a Berliner?

Benjamin Weinthal
18th June 2013 - Foreign Policy

BERLIN — Obama: Ist er ein Berliner? The German weekly Die Zeit posed this question a few days ahead of the U.S. president's visit to the city on Tuesday, June 18. The article -- and Obama's visit -- were timed to coincide with the 50-year commemoration of President John F. Kennedy's famous speech, but the mood here feels less a celebration of a friend in Washington right now than an expression of disappointment over revelations about his role in the NSA's vast surveillance program, which devoted considerable resources to monitoring Germany. Outrage over the PRISM program prompted Der Spiegel to describe Obama as "The Lost Friend."

Obama's first visit as president to Berlin will stand in sharp contrast to his euphoric reception in 2008 as a candidate. As a senator, he delivered a speech to a crowd of 200,000 at Berlin's Victory Column. This time around, Obama's appearance is significantly scaled down, with at most 8,000 attendees scheduled to appear at the Brandenburg Gate, the symbol of German unification. But how much lasting damage have the latest revelations really done?

Germany's prickly response to muscular American security measures is nothing new, of course. Famously, in 2002, former Justice Minister Herta Däubler-Gmelin equated America's war on terror to Nazi Germany, saying "Bush wants to divert attention from domestic problems.... Hitler also did that." As President George W. Bush wrote in his memoir, "It was hard to think of anything more insulting than being compared to Hitler by a German official."

But in this case, the German reaction is somewhat more understandable -- and hits even closer to home. Germany, as it was revealed in documents leaked by former CIA contractor Edward Snowden, was the most monitored EU countryby the National Security Agency. Anger over the snooping affair triggered Markus Ferber, a member of the European Parliament allied with Chancellor Angela Merkel's party to quip, "I thought this era had ended when the DDR fell," referring to the official name of communist East Germany. Similarly, TV host Sonia Mikich delivered a commentary on the news show Tagesthemen in which she referred to the NSA's leaked PRISM program as the "United Stasi of America" -- a reference to East Germany's notoriously repressive security service.

And yet the PRISM row is not likely to overshadow Obama's visit. A day ahead of the Merkel-Obama parley in Berlin, Merkel defused the controversy by defending Internet surveillance and her government's cooperation with the U.S. intelligence establishment. "We are quite dependent on that relationship and we also need to ensure we can act ourselves and that we aren't at the mercy of terrorists," said Merkel.

The disclosure on the weekend that Germany's foreign intelligence agency (BND) pumped an additional 100 million euros into its own Internet monitoring system further suggests that there is -- at least in official circles -- not a great deal of discomfort with the counterterrorism electronic dragnet, even given the country's troubled history with surveillance.

We still don't know much about why the NSA was targeting Germany in particular, but recent history provides a number of plausible explanations.

For example, the United States, based on actionable intelligence, issued a travel advisory warning to Germany and France in 2010 because, as it later turned out, German jihadists were on their way back from the Afghanistan/Pakistan war theater to Europe with the intention of inflicting damage on "Europe's economy." In 2011, Germany's intelligence and police services were humiliated after Frankfurt Airport employee Arid Uka, who was born in Kosovo and raised in Germany, gunned down two U.S. servicemen. Uka had become something of an online jihadi activist in the months leading up the attack. In the aftermath, German officials conceded that they lacked the trained Arabic-language specialists needed to analyze potential terror threats.

Compounding U.S. worries about nefarious individuals within Germany is the growth of members of Hezbollah and other terrorist groups in the Federal Republic. Germany's national intelligence agency, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution (Verfassungsschutz), which issued an alarming report this month documenting a spike in the number of Islamist activists in the country, from 38,080 in 2011 to 42,550 in 2012. Berlin in particular, as it turns out, is a hub of Hezbollah activists, with 250 members in the capital city, and a total of 950 throughout Germany. According to the report, the followers of Saudi Arabia's Wahhabi ideology increased from 3,800 to 4,500.

It is perhaps for these threats, among others, that Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich defended Obama in an interview with Die Welt am Sonntag over the weekend, saying is the over-the-top comparisons in the media are "not how one deals with friends that are our most important partners in the fight against terrorism."  Friedrich added that he was thankful for the close cooperation with U.S intelligence agencies, stressing that America's intelligence information prevented many terrorist attacks in the planning stages and saved lives -- a likely reference to the wave of attacks planned by the second 9/11 cell in Hamburg.

Spin aside, the recent leaks may give some of the visit's photo-ops unwanted overtones. The White House is keen to play up the JFK connection, but Obama's visit also coincides with the anniversary of the June 17, 1953, East German workers' revolt against the communist regime of Walter Ulbricht -- the first mass protest against the Soviet-DDR axis, though admittedly not an event well known outside of eastern Germany. Soviet tanks smashed the upheavals that spread across cities in the East, increasing the paranoia of the regime. Michelle Obama is slated to visit the Berlin Wall Memorial with Merkel's somber husband, Joachim Sauer.

But the complex contours of Berlin's history contrast sharply with the nut-and-bolts working relationship that marks the Obama-Merkel tenure. Though ties between Merkel and Obama are reportedly cool (she famously rejected his wishto deliver a talk in front of the Brandenburg Gate as a candidate back in 2008), the two share a common worldview and temperament. Both are pragmatic, domestically-driven problem-solvers, largely consumed with regenerating job growth, competitiveness, and infrastructure. They also share non-interventionist foreign policy instincts. Both have been reluctant to wade into the Syrian conflict, and Obama's withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan resonate with Merkel's German electorate.

In fact, the Obama's most outspoken foreign-policy critics have leveled similar criticisms of Merkel. While in Berlin last week for the Henry A. Kissinger Prize ceremony at the American Academy, Sen. John McCain told the large business daily Handelsblatt that Germany failed to show leadership during the revolts in Libya and Syria. Germany's government abstained from United Nations Security Council vote authorizing a no-fly zone in Libya and remains vehemently opposed to delivering lethal aid to the Syrian rebels. McCain said the consciousness in Germany is too narrow, and ignores the need for a "military component of foreign policy."

But on the 50-year anniversary of Kennedy's monumental tribute to the democratic bastion of West Berlin in the heart of communist East Germany, Obama will have an opportunity to make history. It's unclear what message he will relay. In 1963, Kennedy provided the world with assurance that the U.S. military had the power and will to blunt Soviet aggression. Don't count on Obama to echo this martial message of freedom: according to the White House, Obama will stressthe "shared history" of German-American relations -- with views toward the past triumph over communism and the precarious challenges of contemporary international security.  

In fact, it's the U.S. president's reluctance to project American power to every corner of the globe that resonates among Germans. In a country where lingering anti-George W. Bush sentiments still run deep, this accounts for a great deal. During the former president's visit at the height of the Iraq War in 2002, Bush was met with massive anti-American protests and disruptions in parliament. And while Germans are still none too thrilled with Obama's drone policies or inability to close Guantanamo -- and now add the NSA surveillance program to that list of complaints -- at least he's not his predecessor. We'll see if that still counts for something.

Benjamin Weinthal is a Berlin-based Fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a European affairs correspondent with the Jerusalem Post. Follow Benjamin on Twitter @BenWeinthal.


europe, european-union, germany, hezbollah, nsa, obama, surveillance