Ruminations on Ingrid, Berlin, and Obama

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

For me, a frantic August is approaching its close (after a thirteen year hiatus I am back to teaching 8th grade U.S. History), but I am still chewing over two sets of images from July.

The first set grew out of the liberation of Ingrid Betancourt and for a glimmer of hope that Colombia’s forty-year civil war might soon come to a peaceful end. By coincidence, at the moment news hit the streets of the Colombian Army’s audacious scam on Betancourt’s FARC captors, my Colombian-born son was back in Bogotá, the first visit there by any member of my family for the same thirteen-years mentioned above. My son had taken his girlfriend to Colombia, and to a mountaintop overlooking Bogotá, to propose marriage. (She accepted!)

On the night my son was born, just as the obstetrician made the decision to deliver the baby by cesarean, an ambulance rushed in with a senator who had lost much of his face to an assassination attempt. While medical personnel turned their attention to the senator*, my wife waited on a gurney somewhere in the inner sanctum of the hospital and I roamed halls full of live TV reporting. An angry crowd filled the parking lot, shouting imprecations against the perpetrators. I spent the wee hours of the morning pondering what the future might hold for my son, for Colombia, and for a world polarized (at that time) into free democracies and Marxist totalitarian regimes. That the wounded senator was also a leader of the Colombian Communist Party did not override the human bond. I wrote a note of sympathy and handed it to the senator’s wife. In my mind, we were all in this together.

The second set of images centers around Barack Obama’s speech in front of Berlin’s Tiergarten Siegessäule, and the 200,000 Berliners who turned out to provide him with rock star adulation.

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The Siegessäule, or “Victory Column,”
surrounded by scaffolding during my
second trip to Berlin, in 1976.

All by themselves, Berlin and the Tiergarten bring back powerful personal memories. In 1972, I made my first trip to Berlin, then a divided city. On a foggy October night, I walked several miles along the western side of the Wall, suddenly coming upon the burnt-out hull of the Reichstag building, still boarded up from the 1933 fire that Adolf Hitler used as an excuse to shut down Germany’s parliament and place the blame on the Communists. The next day I climbed a tower near where, nine years before my visit, John F. Kennedy declared Berlin to be the definitive case study of the differences between Communism and the Free World. Ecstatic crowds showered Kennedy's entourage with flowers, rice and torn paper. Almost like adulation for a rock star.


From the tower, I spent several hours studying No-Man’s Land and pondering the nature of the world in which we lived. Then I snuck into a Tiergarten thicket and rolled out my sleeping bag for the night.

Fifteen years later, Ronald Reagan would come to the same spot to challenge Mikhail Gorbachev to tear the wall down. Of course, on the eve of Reagan’s visit 25,000 Germans rioted in anger.

It seems to me Berliners have a very poor record for recognizing the U.S. presidents who served even Germany's best interests. The Wall had gone up thirty-nine days after the newly inaugurated JFK’s first meeting with Nikita Khrushchev. In Vienna, the Soviet dictator gave JFK a tongue-lashing for which he had no comeback, leading Khrushchev to size-up Kennedy as inexperienced and naïve. Khrushchev decided he could get away with both building the Wall and planting missiles in Cuba. Kennedy performed well in answering those challenges, but a better job in Vienna might have preempted them altogether. Ultimately, the Wall only came down some two years after Reagan gave his challenge, and it fell due to conditions Reagan was one of the few to foresee.

In 2000, I went back to Berlin. I wanted to show my children where the Wall had once stood. I happened to be standing near the Brandenburg Gate at the moment French President Jacques Chirac arrived to visit German Chancelor Gerhard Schröder, to join him in walking under the Brandenburg Gate, and into the Reichstag building, where he addressed Germany's parliament. Symbolically, it not only brought the Cold War to its final punctuation, but it completed a normalization of French-German relations that erased Hitler and all the memories that his name brings to mind.

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Others have pointed out the parallels between Kennedy’s eagerness to meet with Khrushchev and Obama’s offer to meet with leaders like Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It’s true, I don’t see John McCain making the same mistake. However, the parallels I see match Obama more with President Woodrow Wilson. Wilson, a progressive and a university president, leapt to the presidency after two years as governor of New Jersey. As an academic, he’d written the standard college text on the workings of Congress. As war broke out in Europe, he ran for reelection as a peace candidate, even as he understood there would be war. He led us into that war, calling it “The War to End All Wars.” Then, with the war won, he toured Europe to rock-star adulation. He carried with him a remarkable set of progressive ideals, but in the hard bargaining at Versailles, he could not sell them, even to the friends who owed us the most. He won the war and lost the peace. With all that European adulation, he could not draw the European leadership into decisions for their own best interests, and for all his knowledge of Congress, he could not talk them into buying the meager treaty he could bring home. One has to admire his attempt, but his failure guaranteed the outbreak of World War II. At Versailles, he may also have set the stage for my generation’s war in Vietnam by snubbing Ho Chi Minh and that nation’s aspirations for independence.

There is a fascinating moment in Ingrid Betancourt’s interview with Al Jazeera in which she describes the campaign for the Colombian presidency that she was waging at the time she was kidnapped. She believed as president she could negotiate with the FARC. Betancourt stops and asks the Al Jazeera interviewer for the English equivalent of the French word ingénue. “Naïve,” she is told. “Yes, I was naïve,” she answers. In fact, she was glad hard-liner Alvaro Uribe was elected. He had served the country well in standing up to FARC. In a different interview right after her release, she reported that FARC had counted on the Colombian electorate alternating between hard-line and “Peace” presidents. FARC's leadership assumed they could hunker down during the hard-line administrations and recover and thrive while stringing along the presidents who were willing to negotiate. What they had not counted on, and could not recover from, was the constitutional change that allowed Uribe a second term.

This is my worry about Barack Obama: Momentum has shifted in our favor in Iraq, but we have paid too high a price to win the war and then lose the peace. We have also forced Al Qaida to hunker down, but it is naïve to think that like the FARC, they haven’t planned a rebound as soon as the U.S. elects a “Peace” president. On Colombia, Obama and congressional Democrats seem even more eager to let the FARC enjoy enough of a breather to get up from the mat.

I will have more thoughts on Barack Obama in my next post.

*(The Colombian senator was Hernando Hurtado, targeted by a dissident member of FARC. Mrs. Hurtado could not risk a paper trail leading back to a North American serving with an Evangelical mission, but somewhere I still have an oblique and unsigned telegram of appreciation.)

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