Bad in Berlin, Perfect in Paris
Thursday, 31 July 2008

By ROGER COHEN

Paris

This is the time and the city to deconstruct Obama. Barack was bad in Berlin and pitch-perfect in Paris. Is it just that he’s a Rive Gauche kind of guy? Or is something deeper at work?

Obama looks like America reinvented; he summons from Europeans that imagined land of opportunity, foreign to their tired shores and confined spaces, that F. Scott Fitzgerald rendered at the end of “The Great Gatsby:”

“For a transitory, enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”

Europeans demand wonderment of the United States, perhaps because they still regard Fitzgerald’s “fresh, green breast of the new world” as their invention. Beyond his bellicosity, Europeans will never forgive George W. Bush his dullness. No dream was ever stirred from that pinched presidential mouth.

Enter the loose-limbed African-Kansan-Hawaiian hybrid commensurate with Camelot. But Berlin is not his stage. After J.F.K.’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” and Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Obama could not invoke the new in a setting so replete with cold-war ghosts.

Everything was wrong: a Victory Column setting when he’s not yet victorious, a jejune weave from fighting Communism to fighting terrorism, and an accumulation of worthy platitudes. Presence was absence: the semiotics of yesterday’s world cascaded from America’s Homo Novus.

“This,” Obama told nuclear-energy hating Berliners, “is the moment when we must come together to save this planet. Let us resolve that we will not leave our children a world where the oceans rise and famine spreads and terrible storms devastate our lands.”

Yes, Barack, and let us build lovely castles in the sky that the locusts of infamy will never unravel.

Obama made a brilliant speech about race shot through with the truth yielded by personal experience and a questing mind. He made a poor speech about the cold war’s lessons because he never lived it. Originality ceded to orthodoxy.

Instead of speaking in the Tiergarten, he should have spoken in the Jardin du Luxembourg, a setting consistent with his challenge to conventional thinking.

Paris is more his town and it showed. The Obama-Sarkozy two-step was riveting. Obama passed his critical commander-in-chief test: he was precise, strong, reassuring — all Berlin blather banished.

Beside him, the French president couldn’t keep his mouth still, as if gnawing on the meaty, vivifying novelty of so seductive an American friend. Nicolas Sarkozy could not even bring himself to pronounce John McCain’s name:

“So good luck to Barack Obama. If he is chosen, then France will be delighted. And if it’s somebody else, then France will be the friend of the United States of America.”

If that’s not an Obama endorsement from the Élysée Palace, I don’t know what is. Fair enough: the world has shrunk.

Obama, all silky brilliance, merited the endorsement. He dissected the caricatures that have undermined U.S.-European relations (Europe’s militaristic America, and America’s won’t-get-their-hands-dirty Europeans). He noted Sarkozy’s merit in shattering “many of these stereotypes.”

He offered a succinct summary of how to wield American might: “An effective U.S. foreign policy will be based on our ability not only to project power, but also to listen and to build consensus.”

On specifics, he aced every item, identifying a nascent peace quest between Israel and Syria as a potential “game changer” that has received insufficient U.S. attention; calling for a “steady and prudent” troop withdrawal from Iraq in the light of improved security; pairing two additional U.S. brigades in Afghanistan with a call for greater commitment there from NATO allies “not restrained in terms of their rules of engagement;” and warning Iran not to wait for the next president to stop its “illicit nuclear program” because pressure “is only going to build.”

This was a winning performance. By two-to-one, Americans still believe McCain would be a better commander in chief than Obama. That’s the central hurdle the Democratic candidate has to overcome to turn a lead into victory in November. His tough charm in Paris helped.

There are still two Obamas: the slouching, hands-in-pockets boulevardier ambling out of his meeting with Hamid Karzai in Kabul looking anything but presidential, and the assured leader-born beside fellow innovator Sarkozy. Only bridging this gap lies between him and the White House.

Nearly 80 percent of Americans think the country’s headed in the wrong direction. Like Europeans, they are looking for some wonderment. Obama’s semiotics must balance reassurance and renewal. The commander-in-chief test will not be passed by conventionalism alone. That’s McCain’s terrain.

On the road from the Berlin mouther of received ideas to the Paris messenger of generational shift lies Obama’s key to “the last and greatest of all human dreams.”
Roger Cohen, who became the The International Herald Tribune's first editor-at-large in 2006, began writing an Op-Ed column for the paper in May 2007.

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