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Steve Clemons: Obama’s Wall Speech Should Have Been About Israel, Not Berlin

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Barack Obama spoke before an audience of over 200,000 people in Berlin, Germany on Thursday in the largest rally held by any presidential candidate this year. In his address, Obama discussed the importance of the Berlin Wall being torn down. We speak with Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation, who writes, “Had he given those remarks in Israel, at any of the checkpoints that have been added since the Annapolis process began, or at the large dividing wall Israel has constructed, or just about anywhere frankly in Israel or Palestine — it would have been a 'game-changing speech.'” We also speak with author and journalist Tim Shorrock about his article, “Hawks Behind the Dove: Who Makes Obama’s Foreign Policy?” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama is heading to Paris and London today, the latest stops on his week-long tour of the Middle East and Europe. On Thursday, before an audience of over 200,000 people in Berlin, Germany, Obama said the world must tear down walls dividing people.

    SEN. BARACK OBAMA: That is why the greatest danger of all is to allow new walls to divide us from one another. The walls between old allies on either side of the Atlantic cannot stand. The walls between the countries with the most and those with the least cannot stand. The walls between races and tribes, natives and immigrants, Christians and Muslims and Jews, cannot stand. These now are the walls we must tear down.

AMY GOODMAN: The rally in Berlin was the largest held by any presidential candidate this year. While Obama spoke in Berlin, his Republican rival, John McCain, campaigned in Ohio. McCain stops on Thursday included a German sausage restaurant in Columbus, Ohio. A McCain spokesperson accused Obama of taking premature victory lap in Berlin. The spokesperson, Tucker Bounds, said, “John McCain has dedicated his life to serving, improving and protecting America. Barack Obama spent an afternoon talking about it.”

Obama’s speech in Berlin was short on specific policy goals, but he urged closer US-European ties and for NATO nations, including Germany, to send more troops to fight in Afghanistan. He also discussed the importance of the Berlin Wall being torn down.

    SEN. BARACK OBAMA: History has led us to a new crossroad, with new promise and new peril. When you, the German people, tore down that wall, a wall that divided East and West, freedom and tyranny, fear and hope, walls came tumbling down around the world. From Kiev to Cape Town, prison camps were closed, and the doors of democracy were opened. Markets opened too, and the spread of information and technology reduced barriers to opportunity and prosperity. While the twentieth century taught us that we share a common destiny, the twenty-first has revealed a world more intertwined than at any time in human history.

    The fall of the Berlin Wall brought new hope. But that very closeness has given rise to new dangers, dangers that cannot be contained within the borders of a country or by the distance of an ocean. Think about it. The terrorists of September 11th plotted in Hamburg and trained in Kandahar and Karachi before killing thousands from all over the globe on American soil. As we speak, cars in Boston and factories in Beijing are melting the ice caps in the Arctic, shrinking coastlines in the Atlantic, and bringing drought to farms from Kansas to Kenya. Poorly secured nuclear material in the former Soviet Union or secrets from a scientist in Pakistan could help build a bomb that detonates in Paris. The poppies in Afghanistan come to Berlin in the form of heroin. The poverty and violence in Somalia breeds the terror of tomorrow. The genocide in Darfur shames the conscience of us all.

    In this new world, such dangerous currents have swept along faster than our efforts to contain them. And that is why we cannot afford to be divided. No one nation, no matter how large or powerful, can defeat such challenges alone. None of us can deny these threats or escape responsibility in meeting them. Yet, in the absence of Soviet tanks and a terrible wall, it has become easy to forget this truth. And if we’re honest with each other, we know that sometimes, on both sides of the Atlantic, we have drifted apart and forgotten our shared destiny.

AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about Senator Barack Obama’s tour of the Middle East and Europe, I’m joined by Steven Clemons in Washington. He’s the director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, runs the popular blog thewashingtonnote.com.

Your thoughts on, well, this historic presidential candidate address? I don’t know if any other has ever gathered that many people outside the United States, not president, like John F. Kennedy, but presidential candidate, Barack Obama in Berlin. Steven Clemons?

STEVEN CLEMONS: Well, good morning, Amy. This speech and Barack Obama’s tour have been mesmerizing to watch and to see. It’s very strange in American politics when you see the need that a candidate feels he has, in this case, to connect with so many foreign citizens beyond our borders as a way to prove to American citizens that their future in foreign policy and national security issues will be different than what they’ve seen under President Bush. And I think Barack Obama delivered that on this tour, and he punctuated it with his speech yesterday. What — it was a terrific oratory, and I think that he should be given enormous applause for it.

What I found a little disappointing in his call for a world without walls, however, was that this speech nonetheless was still a safe speech. It was given in a safe place. If he had given this kind of speech in Israel or Palestine and talked about a different sort of walls and a divided society, it would have been even a greater game changer in that environment. So, on one hand, I certainly applaud Barack Obama for this speech and what he’s been able to achieve, and I think it shows — it’s a real foil to the kind of world we’re living in under the George W. Bush administration. But it also reminds us that the Middle East, which I think is the defining challenge for America in this era, remains quite complicated with walls and settlements and a divided society that is echoing and ricocheting through the Middle East and creating, I think, an enormous hemorrhage in the region and for us that his speech might have addressed there, rather than in the safe venue of Berlin.

AMY GOODMAN: You mean tearing down the walls in the West Bank, in —-

STEVEN CLEMONS: Well, between -— yeah, in the West Bank and really — you know, the most powerful part of the speech was the part calling for walls between Christians and Muslims and Jews to come down. And to some degree, I think that’s what we need to see in a lot of the Middle East.

But nonetheless, I had Mustafa Barghouti in Washington yesterday, one of the former presidential aspirants for Palestine and a good guy, a secularist who’s trying to move forward an internal issue in Palestine, and he shared with me — he says, you know, Barack Obama was in Ramallah for forty-five minutes and in Israel for about thirty hours. And had he given that kind of speech — a lot of Muslims listened to that speech yesterday — they would have loved to have heard any comment of that sort in Israel. And again, I’m not highly critical of Barack Obama. This is an election season, and you need to stage a lot of visuals. But his speech was so powerful, so important, that it was sad that echoes of it did not play in Israel.

AMY GOODMAN: You also talk, Steven Clemons, in your pieces about, well, where, yes, Barack Obama is going, has gone, and where he’s not going in Europe.

STEVEN CLEMONS: Yeah, exactly. You know, one of the things I found interesting is in his — really, I mean, I think he’s checked off a lot of countries, and I think it was great to get him out on the international stage and not to be shy about it. But at the same time, Europe is vital to us as a place. It is becoming, I think, increasingly important in showing other societies around the world what civil liberty creation and civil society creation can look like as Europe expands.

But Europe’s institutional heart is no longer Berlin or Paris or London. While those are power centers, Brussels is. And so, when you’re reaching out to 500 million people and trying to show what the promises tomorrow of what Europe is struggling to become, not to spend a couple of hours and check off that Brussels box, I think, was a big mistake.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Steve Clemons, director of American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation. Now, Barack Obama has an interesting position in the Senate. He’s chair of the European Subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Explain its significance.

STEVEN CLEMONS: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain its significance.

STEVEN CLEMONS: Well, any committee in the United States Senate has very important subcommittees that deal with various topics. And when the Democrats came into the majority in the Senate, Barack Obama became chairman of the European Subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. This same subcommittee was the one that Joseph Biden used to chair in the past.

And I wrote a piece once where I was trying to look at the executive skills of legislators and comparing, at the time, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. I had assumed that Hillary Clinton hadn’t had much time for these and that Barack Obama, who was relatively new to the Senate, would have been drilling into some of the policy issues by chairing committees and hearing them. And I found somewhat the opposite. It wasn’t an effort to try and undermine Obama, but I was astonished that he had never chaired a policy hearing in the subcommittee.

And when I dug deeper, I talked to Senator Obama’s advisers; they said, “You know, Steve, you realize we have to get permission from the chairman” — meaning Joe Biden — “to hold these committees.” And I dug into it. Senator Biden would have been happy to provide any of that permission. So, the important thing is, this subcommittee could have talked about anything dealing with Europe, or Europe or NATO’s responsibilities. And most importantly, those responsibilities, in the near term, had been Afghanistan.

And I think that it was just a part of Barack Obama’s profile that he hadn’t filled out yet. And I think he responded honestly. He said when he got his campaign going, he didn’t have a lot of time and didn’t do it. But I think it’s very important, and I think the Obama team realizes it’s important, that when they have responsibilities of that sort, they need to run in a lot of parallel tracks, particularly given his Senate responsibilities and his government responsibilities, to — you can’t just focus on one area and then neglect a portion of your key responsibility as chair, which I think, unfortunately, was the case.

But I think this has been a little bit overplayed in the press. I do think that he knows quite a bit about Europe. And I suspect that before the year’s out, even before he runs, you’ll find a subcommittee hearing this next season.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Steven Clemons, director of American Strategy Program at New America Foundation, runs the blog thewashingtonnote.com. We’re going to go to break, and when we come back, he’ll be joined by Tim Shorrock, investigative journalist. He talks about Barack Obama’s advisers, “Hawks Behind the Dove: Who Makes Obama’s Foreign Policy?” and also has a new piece on a database that could lead, he says, to a Church-style investigation on the scale of Watergate, at least that’s what he’s calling for. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: We continue on this historic moment yesterday, a presidential candidate from the United States, in this case, Barack Obama, traveling Europe, standing in Berlin, hundreds of thousands of people came out to see him. Our guests are Steven Clemons, director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, and we’re also joined by Tim Shorrock, investigative journalist and author, his article, “Hawks Behind the Dove: Who Makes Obama’s Foreign Policy?”

Your thoughts on his European trip, Tim Shorrock? And who does, do you believe, influence Obama’s policy?

We’re going to try to correct the audio there. Tim Shorrock’s microphone just has to be turned on. He’s speaking to us from San Francisco.

But let me put that to — let me put that to Steve Clemons. Steve, the advisers behind the man?

STEVEN CLEMONS: [inaudible] has a diverse set of advisers, but in particularly Middle East policy and some European policy, he has some folks like Dennis Ross, Kurt Campbell, James Steinberg — we saw a lot of video with Jim Steinberg, a former Deputy National Security Adviser in the Clinton administration, behind Barack Obama at various meetings — and others. But it’s been, to some degree, Dennis Ross that has raised a lot of ire.

I haven’t read — Tim Shorrock is a great friend, and I haven’t read his piece, although about a hundred people have emailed it to me overnight, and apparently it’s a real sizzler. But the issue is that there is what Ari Berman of The Nation once wrote about some of the Democratic hawks as a strategic class of advisers who, in the way in which they approach these issues, feel as if they need to be very pro-military, very pro-Pentagon, design policies that almost look for a conflict or crisis by which to define their presidency and their campaign.

And frankly, I’m very opposed to that sort of thinking, because it creates an orientation that I think — you know, I — this will be a bit provocative, but I think it creates an atmosphere of almost being a left or a — you know, a left version of a neoconservatism, finding crisis to define themselves and a militancy shrouded in values that I think really neither solves the problem we’re trying to focus and really puts America and American interests in a very awkward and, I think, jeopardized position.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s see if we can go to Tim Shorrock, Tim in San Francisco. Let’s see if we’ve got that mic up. Tim?

TIM SHORROCK: Good morning, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Why don’t you go on with that issue of who are the advisers that are influencing Barack Obama’s foreign policy?

TIM SHORROCK: Well, the piece I wrote in The Progressive took a look at a lot of the people that have been advising him in general on foreign policy, people like Zbigniew Brzezinski, people from the previous administration of Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. I have — I think Steve’s right. I think that a lot of people from the — that are advising Barack Obama on foreign policy are rather militant in terms of American foreign policy and its projection. They seem to come — the closest people seem to be people who have worked with Bill Clinton that were sort of on the dovish side of the war in Iraq, who opposed the war in Iraq from the very beginning. Brzezinski, for example, has really condemned the US policy in Iraq and said it’s a huge step backward and has been very outspoken on the war.

What I’m a little bit concerned about is pressures coming from various Democrats on Barack Obama to appoint someone like Richard Holbrooke to be Secretary of State, sort of these old standouts in the Democratic Party. I covered US policy, particularly in Asia, during the Cold War and at a time when people like Richard Holbrooke and Brzezinski were running US foreign policy for Jimmy Carter. And I have a lot of problems about the way that they dealt with issues, such as the democracy movement in South Korea, when, in the US eyes, it became a perceived threat to American national security interests. And also, there’s a very war-like tendency on the part of some of these Democrats to respond with force, when perhaps we could be using negotiations in different places of the world. And I’m a little bit concerned about that. And I think that Obama’s — the direction of his foreign policy is very unclear. He says a lot of very good things, but exactly what he’ll do, it’s very hard to read.

AMY GOODMAN: You begin your piece by talking about Cuba’s dramatic announcement last February that Fidel Castro was stepping down as head of the Cuban government, presenting Barack Obama with an unprecedented opportunity to establish his foreign policy credentials and set him apart from Hillary Clinton. What road did he choose?

TIM SHORROCK: Well, he pretty much stayed, actually, to the Clinton position and basically the Bush position. I think he had an opportunity here to explain to the American people and take a position that this embargo has simply not worked. I mean, Castro did step down voluntarily, but it’s certainly created a lot of animosity between the US and the Cuban people. And, you know, if you compare Cuba to China, I mean, we have all this trade with China, openness in terms of business and investment, yet we continue to treat Cuba like a pariah state. And I think that was a mistake, and I think he could have come forward and said, you know, this embargo hasn’t worked.

He did make some mild comments at the beginning, sort of taking issue with, like, we need a new policy in Cuba, but he pretty much proceeded to lay out a response, and he gave a very — he gave a speech in Miami to Cuban Americans that basically echoed the policy of the Bush administration and Hillary Clinton, which is to take a very hard line toward the Cuban leadership and not do anything drastic in terms of changing the American policy until there’s a new regime there. And I feel like, in a sense, that’s a calling for regime change in Cuba, rather than trying to work with the Cuban leadership on developing — you know, starting someplace and, you know, expanding trade and expanding —- or letting people visit there and creating a more normal atmosphere, so there can be a change in policy, both in the United States and Cuba.

STEVEN CLEMONS: Amy, might -—

TIM SHORROCK: And he didn’t really take that chance.

STEVEN CLEMONS: Might I add to Tim’s comment on this?

AMY GOODMAN: Steve Clemons, yes, go ahead.

STEVEN CLEMONS: I think that Tim’s point is extremely important. To give Barack Obama credit, when he — at the end of July, when he spoke in Miami, he did call for an increase in the amount that
Cuban American families could remit back to family and relatives in Cuba and wanted to remove restrictions on Cuban Americans living here and traveling to Cuba. And those were two steps and are probably —-

What’s interesting about that speech, it was nonetheless wrapped as a major change among presidential candidates in US-Cuba policy. I wrote a piece at the time that said Chris Dodd set the gold standard of wanting to remove all restrictions, end the embargo, and ending the embargo and promoting people-to-people exchange, particularly even if the embargo isn’t lifted, would create new currents, new opportunities, and it would fit a lot of what we’ve done with Vietnam, China, other countries that in fact have been isolated by us. What was interesting is that Barack Obama was very pleased with the way in which we gave him some credit at the time.

As time moved on, however, particularly after his bold statement about being willing to meet foreign leaders, which I -— problematic foreign leaders, which I thought was a very important step and, I think, a defining element and ornament in Obama’s campaign, I found it odd — and I raised it with Susan Rice, one of Barack Obama’s foreign policy advisers — on a public media conference call, I asked, why wasn’t Barack Obama willing to go back to the status quo that existed even under the George W. Bush administration between 2001 and 2004, which, in particular, provided for people-to-people, non-tourist, cultural exchange and travel? And the response we received on that phone call was basically that when we saw free and fair elections and a change in the climate regarding human rights, etc., etc. — all sounds good but is pretty much where the Bush administration is — then we would consider other changes. And I found that to be remarkable, that, after five decades of a failed embargo.

I am less critical of Zbig Brzezinski than Tim. What I find interesting about Zbig Brzezinski on Cuba, for instance, is that Brzezinski is completely against this embargo, completely for engagement, and various other — I think the Brzezinski we see today is not the Brzezinski we saw as a Machiavellian realpolitik manipulator in the world. I think Brzezinski sees America has lost a moral credibility and edge in the world, and he wants to see some of that restored. But what’s interesting — I was just talking to him the other day about Cuba — he thinks Barack Obama’s position — he’s advising him — falls short. And it falls short in the Middle East, as well, in some issues there.

So, I want to emphasize that Tim is absolutely right in some way. Obama stepped forward a little bit, but then he triangulated back and began to act a little bit less robustly committed to a change.

Why is Cuba important? Cuba is important because it is a template. It’s an easy way, at very low cost, to show the world that you’re going to engage it differently. I tend to be more in the kind of progressive realist camp. I’m not the greatest fan of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, like some of my friends may be. But nonetheless, it would enable us to show in Latin America and many other places in the world a very different kind of engagement over world problems. Cuba is the only place in the world where the Cold War got colder in the last decade. And to do that removes an ability for Hugo Chavez to declare bragging rights, if you will, about Cuba and to show it.

I feel the same way about Syria and Iran. Let’s open up to Syria a bit more. Let’s move some people. Let’s take Syria, to some degree, out of the cold. An automatic distance begins to develop between Syria and Iran that can be both, frankly, good for everyone and stabilizing. This is the kind of thinking I would like to see the Obama camp show more sensitivity towards, and it hasn’t happened, just like Tim Shorrock says.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Steve Clemons, I want to thank you for joining us, and we’ll see if that kind of discussion goes up, especially around the Olympics in China and the comparisons of how the US deals with China and Cuba. Steve Clemons is with the New America Foundation, runs the popular blog thewashingtonnote.com. Tim Shorrock, I’d like you to stay with us to talk about your latest piece.

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