Obama Chooses a Symbol of War as Berlin Backdrop

July 23 (Bloomberg) — Sometimes it is the words that get the politicians in trouble. Sometimes it is the images. In Berlin, a single picture of Barack Obama is likely to paint a thousand words about the limits of his foreign policy.

Consider the Obama plan. The likely Democratic presidential nominee will arrive in Berlin after a tour of the Middle East. Tomorrow, he's scheduled to speak to Berliners and the rest of the world in a televised address at the Victory Column, in the center of the German capital. The euphoria will emanate to every living room. Berliners can be matched in the intensity of their Obama-mania only by Wesleyan undergraduates.

So far, so much good news for Barack. Berlin, after all, is the world's greatest foreign-policy success story, a divided city now united, peaceably, as one.

You can understand, too, why Obama campaigners settled on the Victory Column venue. Neither the U.S. State Department nor German leaders were pleased with earlier ideas that they deemed too presidential for a man not even officially nominated. One was to have Obama make like President John F. Kennedy and give an "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech.

Another was to have the Illinois senator speak at the Brandenburg Gate, where Ronald Reagan looked east to the city's communist half and cried "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"

The Victory Column, a gold-edged pillar topped by a winged figure, seemed the next best thing for 2008. Photographers can tell themselves the column is the German version of our obelisks, recalling the Washington Monument.

'Wings of Desire'

At the Victory Column, there's a traffic circle, space for the World Cup-scale mega-crowd that's sure to come to hear Obama. If you angle your camera right you can fit the Brandenburg Gate and Victory Column into the same frame.

Finally, for the artsy crowd, the Victory Column is something of a cultural reference point, having been featured in Wim Wenders' iconic "Wings of Desire."

Still, the Victory Column is hardly Obama-esque. His candidacy, whether he makes it explicit or not, isn't about attacking abroad. It is about defense at the most, and America turning inward. In Obama terms, American identity is about improving ourselves through domestic reform. The change of which he so often speaks starts at home.

All About War

The Victory Column is about the opposite: offensive war, even defining yourself as a nation through war. Otto von Bismarck and Wilhelm of Prussia led German bayonets into France. Their 1871 victory was so resounding that the Prussian leaders marched to the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles and proclaimed the new German empire — there, and not at home.

The purpose of the Victory Column, erected soon after in Berlin, was to glorify the new Reich and to humiliate the rest of Europe. The angel is a vengeful angel. Closure is what Obama seeks in Iraq. As he puts it, "when I am Commander-in-Chief, I will set a new goal on day one: I will end this war."

But Prussia succeeded specifically because it never gave its enemy the promise of closure. As war historian Max Boot notes, Prussia's decisive victory at Koeniggratz, the one that put the generals on the path to Paris, came out of what it learned in a string of defeats.

Prussians never gave up. They always fought. Other countries, it was said of the Europe of the 19th century, had armies. In Prussia, the army had a country.

Blood and Iron

Bismarck, modern Germany's founder, is known for his social-insurance plans, including health insurance for workers. But Bismarck's Germany was also the Germany of Blood and Iron, the one that fought World War I and then created the Nazis. Through the wars, the lexicon remained the same. In German, the column is "Siegessaeule" — literally, "column of victory." One of the Nazi greetings was "sieg heil" — hail victory.

The column was such a symbol of martial power that the French, on a high in 1946, demanded it be blown up. In the end, the Allies let it stand while they protected Berlin for an indeterminate conflict, which endured for almost half a century, the Cold War.

At many points in this frustrating period, the U.S. defense budget was a larger share of the economy than it is today. The Allies, including the West Germans, persevered, even though their work was at times deeply unpopular in Europe and the U.S. Reagan's "Tear down this wall" speech was right. But it wasn't greeted with the adulation that Obama's words will receive.

'But Why?'

Even now, many Germans view the Victory Column with ambivalence or embarrassment. When, earlier this week, it became clear the Obama campaign had selected it as the site for the speech, the German weekly Die Zeit asked "wieso bloss?" — "but why?" Noting the above-mentioned camera advantage, the newspaper concluded nonetheless, "as background for a peace message to the peoples of the world, it doesn't exactly recommend itself."

To be clear: Obama is so popular in Germany that German crowds probably won't care where he stands, even if it is on his head, when he addresses them. TV commentators will class the Victory Column choice as "interesting irony" and leave it at that.

But what the Berlin cityscape reminds us is that you sometimes encounter war even when you don't want to. And that wars don't always fit into timetables. That unpopular policies can be the wisest. These are realities relevant to the military challenges confronting the next president. If Obama is to make a coherent foreign policy — let alone a good one — he has to fit these elements, too, into his picture.

(Amity Shlaes, a senior fellow in economic history at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of "The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression," is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

© Copyright 2008 Bloomberg

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