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Filed under: Blogging, Government, Politics, WORLD POLITICS — Rick Moran @ 10:34 am

Now that all the apologies for Americans freely electing George Bush twice are out of the way, perhaps the president will make this trip to Europe and his “outreach” to Muslims a little more meaningful than his last foray overseas.

Aside from some gratuitous slaps at his predecessor (and some rookie gaffes), I don’t think Obama performed all that badly over in Europe a couple of months ago. It was basically a “meet and greet” trip, heavy on media events and light on substance (except the speech in Turkey where, despite a couple of eyebrow raising passages, wasn’t bad and he said some things that needed to be said to the Muslim world).

But this trip will be different - especially the first leg which begins tomorrow in Saudi Arabia for some important discussions with King Abdullah and then it’s on to Cairo University for his much anticipated speech to the Muslim world. He will also take time to meet with President Mubarak as well as perhaps, some Egyptian dissidents although that part of the trip is still up in the air.


Obama’s talks with Abdullah will be crucial to establishing a good rapport with an ally that is becoming more and more important as both a stand in for America in places like Lebanon and Jordan as well as a counterweight to Iran’s ambitions. The stop in Riyadh was a late addition to the schedule - a development that did not please Egypt who thinks that the Saudi stop takes some of the luster off their own hosting of Obama on Thursday.

The agenda for Obama’s Abdullah meeting will be quite full but I suspect one of the main reasons for adding this stop was the political situation in Lebanon. Parliamentary elections will take place next week and Abdullah has been doing yeoman’s work in working behind the scenes at our behest to strengthen the Sunni bloc and support the March 14th forces in their battle against the Hezbullah-backed opposition. Israel would take a very dim view of Hezbullah being formally installed as part of the country’s leadership coalition. (They already exercise de facto control of the country by dint of their militia and veto power in the cabinet.)

The probable outcome of the election will be that neither side receives a majority but that Hezbullah will have a chance to form a government if their bloc gets more votes than the democrats. No doubt Obama and the King will discuss eventualities if that occurs as well as the administration’s overtures to Iran and Syria. Some analysts believe that Obama’s trip to Riyadh also signals support for the King’s peace plan , something that Obama advisors have talked about in positive terms. But Israel has rejected it and it is unlikely to be revived at this point.

As I said, a full plate.

Obama will make his long awaited and much anticipated speech to the Muslim world on Thursday. The forum he has chosen is interesting: Cairo University is one of the oldest centers of learning in the world. It has also seen it’s share of student protests against the Egyptian government. It will be interesting to see if Obama plays the role of lecturer and takes Egypt (and the rest of the Arab world) to task for their miserable human rights records or whether he will appear as conciliator, bridging the gap between Muslims and the West.

During a briefing about the trip yesterday with press secretary Gibbs and Deputy NSA’s Denis McDonough and Mark Lippert, we got a preview of what Obama will talk about:

I think what you can expect is a speech that really addresses the range of issues and interests and concerns that we have across this broad swath of the globe that is the Muslim world. And I think the fact is, is that the President himself experienced Islam on three continents before he was able to — or before he’s been able to visit, really, the heart of the Islamic world — you know, growing up in Indonesia, having a Muslim father — obviously Muslim Americans a key part of Illinois and Chicago.

And so it’s going to address a range of issues. You raised some: freedom and opportunity, prosperity. And I think it is fair to say that the President has focused an awful lot of time, as you suggest, focused on revitalizing this economy, which he inherited in such shape. But I think you’ll see his speech addresses the full range of issues and interests that we have on Thursday.

MR. GIBBS: Mark is going to add one point.

MR. LIPPERT: I would just add one other thing, in terms of context, as you’ve seen, is the President, he doesn’t hesitate to take on the tough issues in his speech, just harkening back to his Senate career when he delivered a very, very powerful message on corruption in Kenya; he continually raises these issues here with leaders when they come through both in private and through public statements, as well. So again, you have a President who’s not afraid to engage on very tough, tough issues.

How “tough” can Obama afford to be? Speaking truth to the world’s Muslims would seem to go against everything he has been saying since he was elected. Instead, he will probably be tougher on America and especially Israel than he will be on the tyrants in the Middle East or the despots elsewhere who use religion to keep their populations in line. And as far as taking Muslims to task for their silent assent for jihad, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for him to make mention of that little inconvenient fact.

Marc Lynch has some thoughts on how Obama has laid the groundwork for this speech by talking tough to Israel on the settlement issue, thus (hopefully) making his Muslim audience more receptive to his words:

Secretary of State Clinton, Middle East envoy Mitchell and others in the administration have reportedly been pounding home the importance of the settlements issue at every opportunity — both in private and in what I would consider a well-coordinated strategic communications campaign. General David Petraeus added his voice to the mix in a front page interview in the influential Saudi paper al-Hayat, saying that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would improve American security and weaken its adversaries. (Perhaps the imprimatur of Gen. Petraeus will sway some American skeptics as well?)

As Obama leaves for Saudi Arabia and Egypt, he will thus benefit from the headlines and op-eds in the Arab press featuring his strong stand on the settlements. His team has done an outstanding job setting the stage, establishing its credibility both with Israeli and Arab audiences and generating real momentum. It should help him get a receptive audience for the much-anticipated address, and allow him to point to deeds matching words (the most frequent Arab criticism of his outreach thus far).

I think this is too optimistic and raises expectations for the president’s diplomacy too high. But then, the pro-engagement lobby believes that a this is just the ticket to light a fire under the Israelis and restart the peace talks - especially after the Netanyahu government is seen as destroying US-Israel relations over the settlements issue and falls as a result. Presumably, the new government will have a different attitude toward the settlements and, voila! Progress is made.

Nobody will ever accuse the Obama administration of not aiming high.


This is the symbolic part of Obama’s trip and while his meetings with Merkel and Sarkozy especially will be important with regard to the world’s financial crisis (Gordon who?), the real fireworks will erupt when the president first visits the concentration camp Buchenwald and then meets Chancellor Merkel in, of all places, Dresden.

This is worse than Reagan going to Bitburg, the site of a cemetery where SS troops were buried. (Read the Wikpedia entry for an interesting take on the controversy.) Reagan used the occasion (or was forced into using it by dint of the ignorance of his staff who scheduled the stop not knowing of its notorious history) as an eloquent and emotional opportunity for reconciliation. It ended up being a positive for Reagan despite the controversy.

But Obama in Dresden opens up a trap door for the president that he will have a tough time avoiding.

John Rosenthal:

The symbolic significance of a visit to Dresden by the American president — especially one undertaken in connection with a D-Day commemoration in France — may be missed by some Americans, but it is absolutely unmistakable for the German public. For Germans, Dresden is the symbol bar none of German suffering at the hands of the Allies. The city was heavily bombed by British and American air forces in February 1945, toward the end of the war. According to the most recent estimates of professional historians, anywhere from 18,000 to at most 25,000 persons died in the attacks. These numbers come from a historical commission established by the city of Dresden itself. But far higher numbers — ranging into the hundreds of thousands — have long circulated in Germany and beyond. The bombing of Dresden is commonly described as a “war crime” in German discussions.

Alleged crimes committed by the Allies against Germans and Germany have indeed become a sort of German literary obsession in recent years, with numerous books being devoted to the subject. The taste of the German public for the theme was made particularly clear by the enormous success of author Jörg Friedrich’s 2002 volume The Fire [Der Brand], which is about the Allied bombardment of Germany. The book’s success was so great that Friedrich and his publisher quickly followed up with a picture book on the same topic titled Scenes of the Fire: How the Bombing Looked.


It is virtually unthinkable that Obama could give a speech in Dresden and not allude to the bombing of the city. Most of the city’s historical monuments — which Obama’s advance team were apparently inspecting — were severely damaged or destroyed in the bombing and had to be rebuilt. Moreover, for Obama to visit both Dresden and Buchenwald would suggest precisely the sort of outrageous parallels that have become commonplace in Germany at least since the publication of Friedrich’s The Fire.

Will Obama apologize for the fire bombing of Dresden? And most problematic of all, will he try to draw moral parallels between Buchenwald and Dresden?

The Germans would like nothing better but I suspect the president will be extraordinarily careful in making any such comparisons. But hasn’t he already made those parallels plain by juxtaposing the visits in the first place? The president has invited comparisons by the very act of his visiting both sites and there is nothing he can do to change that. They barely mentioned Dresden at the press briefing:

…And secondly, why did the President choose Dresden particularly? Is it just because it’s close to Buchenwald? Is he trying to make some kind of implied point about German casualties, civilian casualties during the war? Or is it just purely a biographical thing?

MR. McDONOUGH: You obviously covered a range of issues and it underscore the importance of the trip. Obviously — and this underscores the reason I think the President is eager to change the conversation with our Muslim and Arab friends. We have a range of issues — you named several of them — Iran, proliferation, Afghanistan, Pakistan, obviously Israeli-Palestinian, have got key elections coming up throughout the region. So it’s an important time, it’s an important issue. I think the President believes it’s an important opportunity to advance the national interest.
As it relates to Dresden, I would just say that obviously the President has a lot of respect for the Chancellor. I think that he, from his early conversations with her, was struck by her time in the former East, and so I think he looks forward to an opportunity to see the major changes in the former East, but also to, as I said, harken back to certain undeniable truths and undeniable realities specifically as it relates to the Holocaust.

“Undeniable truths?” Stay tuned.

From Germany, its off to France for a non-controversial visit to the US cemetery at Coleville and a side trip to Caen. My own prediction - totally unrelated to anything - is that the press will be so bored by this point that they will invent a controversy between Madame Obama and Carla Bruni, Sarkozy’s drop dead gorgeous wife. It will sell zillions of papers and have people glued to their seats in front of cable news. Two female titans in a cat fight!


I am eager to hear the president’s speech on D-Day and compare it from an academic and historical point of view with Reagan’s famous Point du Hoc address. Hard to keep an open mind on this one but perhaps exploring both speeches thematically will tell us not only something about Obama but also, by comparing and contrasting the two set pieces, it should tell us something about the times we live in as well.

Finally, the president gave an interview to the BBC in which he set up a strawman and then proceeded to appear to embrace it - after blowing it away:

“The danger I think is when the United States or any country thinks that we can simply impose these values on another country with a different history and a different culture,” Obama said in an interview with the BBC that aired Monday.

Obama’s opponents have criticized him for appearing to apologize for American policies and behavior while overseas. On Monday, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — a possible Republican presidential contender in 2012 — scolded the president for his “tour of apology.”

While Obama seemed to suggest in his BBC interview that America has wrongly attempted to force its principles on other nations, he also argued that other nations should want to adopt those principles without coaxing.

“Democracy, rule of law, freedom of speech, freedom of religion — those are not simply principles of the West to be hoisted on these countries, but rather what I believe to be universal principles that they can embrace and affirm as part of their national identity,” he said.

This is pure doublespeak - appearing to take his predecessor to task for “imposing” concepts like democracy and the rule of law on Iraq while chiding other nations for not embracing those same values.

What’s the point? Perhaps we should have just imposed the usual thuggish dictatorship on the Iraqis. Would that have pleased him? This kind of dubious logic comes from possessing a naive outlook on the rest of the world. As other cultures and nations greedily assimilate as much of western culture that their rulers let them get away with, Obama seems to be saying that we’re wrong in promoting those values while at the same time urging other cultures to graft them on to their national identity.

A real head shaker.

Regardless, it will be interesting to watch the president as he tries to achieve some of the ambitious goals he has set for this trip.


  1. Transcript of the Obama BBC interview, for those interested in more than a FoxNews summary.

    The Dresden visit is interesting. Odds are good that Obama and team will navigate it fine but there is always the possibility of some genuine gaffe or miscalculation. My amateur reading is that Dresden would have been in violation of the 1949 Geneva conventions, but the applicable 1907 Hague conventions were considerably vaguer about targeting of civilian areas.

    Comment by Bill Arnold — 6/2/2009 @ 11:45 am

  2. My personal position on Dresden and Hiroshima et al is: if you don’t want your cities burned to the ground don’t make war on the United States.

    I would work the Dresden-Buchenwald speech around to point out that while we were burning Germans at Dresden, Germans were burning Germans at Buchenwald. German Jews were, after all, Germans. Of course many other nationalities were murdered as well, but the mass-slaughter of Germans was begun by Germany. WW2 was as much an act of suicide as it was murder and a nation that shows no respect for the lives of its own people can hardly expect us to live up to a higher standard.

    Of course I’d say it all in that charming Obama way as opposed to the thuggish Reynolds way.

    This is pure doublespeak - appearing to take his predecessor to task for “imposing” concepts like democracy and the rule of law on Iraq while chiding other nations for not embracing those same values.

    I don’t see the problem. He’s saying Democracy is a great thing, you folks ought to try it, but we were wrong to try and ram it down your throat.

    I don’t entirely agree with him, but there’s nothing naive or foolish about saying, “You should do X, but we won’t force you to do X.”

    We’ll just burn your cities down if you mess with us.

    Comment by michael reynolds — 6/2/2009 @ 1:47 pm

  3. Something stripped out the embedded BBC link, sorry about that:

    Comment by Bill Arnold — 6/2/2009 @ 2:48 pm

  4. michael reynolds Said:

    I don’t entirely agree with him, but there’s nothing naive or foolish about saying, “You should do X, but we won’t force you to do X.” We’ll just burn your cities down if you mess with us.

    Burn your cities down… This is an approach I can totally get behind.

    Comment by Chuck Tucson — 6/2/2009 @ 3:41 pm

  5. General Petreaus apparently believes that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will weaken Aemrican adversaries and improve American security. I have to say I’m a bit skeptical of this line of reasoning, as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is but one small part of the equation and it is unrelated to the situations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and elsewhere.

    Also, America’s chief adversaries or potential adversaries are Russia and China. Resolving the Israeli=Palestinian conflict does nothing to address the threats posed by these two countries and their allies.

    With that said perhaps the good General might be correct IF a settlement leads to a stronger Israel. If the settlement leads to a weaker Israel, then Aemrica’s adversaries will be strengthened and America’s security situation will be much more precarious than it already is. Israel acts as a very important buffer between America and ots Middle Eastern adversaries. Any settlement that weakens Israel would weaken this buffer and would make it much more costly and difficult to defend America.

    Unfortunately the current “peace plans” being considered would very likely result in a weaker Israel. As such, these are not plans that a supporter of America or Israel should support. For any peace plan to work, Hamas would have to be destroyed or at least neutralized. The same things applies to Fatah as well. It needs to be destroyed or at least neutralized as well.

    While I can certainly get behind the notin that Mr. Reynolds proposes if you mess with us you get your cities burned down, this may not be a viable option for the early 21st century. At no time since the end of WWII has America been weaker relative to its enemies and potential enemies than it is now. In other words, many of them are fully capable of burning our cities down as well. Also due to the declining economic situation and the massive national debt that was started under President Bush and has continued unabated under President Obama, the United States will likely have to make steep budget cuts in future years. The first programs to be cut are likely those pertaining to national defense and intellegence gathering.

    As such, the American military is likely to be only a shell of what it is now within the next five years. This comes at a time when potential adversaries are making major upgrades to their militaries. Given this situation we may not have a viable military action to deal with some adversaries in the coming years.

    Our best option would be to: 1.)withdraw all men and military equipment from the middle east as soon as they can be withdraw, 2.)these forces should be redeployed to the borders, 3.)open up all domestic oil and gas sources for extraction, 4.)build more refineries, 5.)cloesly monitor the mosques, and 6.)place a moratorium on all immigration for a minimum of ten years. This moratorium would be indefinite for immigration from Islamic countries. Some type of Visa for foreign workers might be acceptabel but they would need to be closely monitored. I think other countries do this. Doing this would have greater utility for our national security interests than burning anyone’s cities down would and it would give us some space to develop the so called “green” alternatives for our energy needs that are all the rage these days.

    Comment by B.Poster — 6/2/2009 @ 5:51 pm

  6. Why do politicians insist of making themselves part of history or generally trying to grand stand on historical commemorations esp post Reagan. I think people miss the point of his great speeches. The point being sincerity and genuine emotion from the speech come from the shared experience of the speaker and the audience not the profundities of speech writers and soaring rhetoric of politicians. Reagan made training films during the war but he could have been one of the boys at Omaha or Iwo Jima or Okinawa.

    As far as appearing in Dresden well I suppose the point of Allied bombing must be addressed since the President’s audience will have victims’ family members in attendance. I look forward to his address esp reading the transcript. I do not like watching the speech on television. The cheering and demonstrations are distraction.

    Comment by Kevin Brown — 6/2/2009 @ 6:06 pm

  7. “…especially after the Netanyahu government is seen as destroying US-Israeli relations over the settlements and falls as are result.” It really isn’t America’s business to be meddling in the Arab-Israeli conflict with regards to the “settlements.” It is definitely not in America’s interests to work to topple that government either. If the US worked to topple an Arab government through covert means or even overt means, the American and world media would howl with rage over the actions the “imperial” United States government. Our best bet is to stay out of this issue all together. Issues like this are none of our business.

    Comment by B.Poster — 6/2/2009 @ 10:23 pm

  8. The Israeli/Arab conflict has existed for hundreds of years! Our quasi-Muslim president isn’t going to solve it by turning his back on our one reliable ally in the Middle East. We have existing agreements to support Israel - so their survival IS our business! And I don’t give a rat’s eardrum WHAT the American and world media howling about! This is OUR country and we should be doing the right thing! Not cowering in abject apology before people whose asses we hqad to save 3 times in the last century! Screw ‘em!

    Comment by Gayle Miller — 6/3/2009 @ 7:04 am

  9. While I would like to think that the president would try to avoid drawing comparisons between Dresden and Buchenwald, but so far he seems to only think in terms of American “atrocities”. As a vet, and the son, grandson and great-grandson of vets, I tremble in fear of what this clown will say at the D-Day ceremonies. I find his mere presence (not the office but the person) offensive. I much fear he will both deny America’s Christian heritage (which even I as an atheist do not do) and military heritage as well.

    Comment by George — 6/3/2009 @ 7:07 am

  10. In regards to the Dresden part of the article I would urge caution.

    Rosenthals notion of an controversy is centred around the idea that the visit to Dresden was Obamas idea. He even suggests that the Visit to Buchenwald was Obamas main goal and Buchenwald merely an “Alibi”.

    Apart from the obvious problem that there seems to be no earthly benefit for Obama to choose Dresden while he has every (family) reason to visit Buchenwald, this allegation does not mesh with the information known in Germany.

    As far as can be determined, Obama intended only to visit Buchenwald and Landstuhl . However Mrs. Merkel, who is up for re-election in September insisted on an photo op with the President who is immensely popular in Germany. It seems much more likely that Dresden was chosen as the nearest city of any importance (a mere 40 miles from Buchenwald). Additionally, the rebuilding of Dresden is seen as one of the few “pan-German” success stories of the reunification period making it even more desirable as a backdrop.

    [quote]The Germans would like nothing better…[/quote]

    This seems to be a rather far-fetched allegation. While the far right would (obviously) latch on to it, the qualitative difference of the two occurrences is blatantly obvious and a comparison between is patently ridiculous even to those who oppose to the Desden bombings on ethical grounds. Even if an apology would be forthcoming (extremely unlikely) this would in no way shape or form diminish German guilt or responsability.

    As to Rosenthals articels, I would advise caution there too. While (as far as a cursory browsing could tell) pointing out important German deficiencies like the glacial pace of NS investigations, they seem to suffer from a serious outsiders perspective, often misunderstanding German contexts. They also contain some extremely bad translations from the German, resulting in some rather distorted takes on German matters and moods.

    Comment by Ebenezer — 6/3/2009 @ 11:37 am

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