Barack Obama made a big speech in Berlin yesterday. You might have heard about it; it made all the websites. The transcript shows an address that was inspiring and high-minded, if admittedly light on substantive policy discussion. The 200,000 people who showed up certainly seemed happy with it.
New York Times columnist David Brooks was not.
Brooks, who was not initially hostile toward Obama, soured on the Illinois Senator roughly the second it became obvious Obama would win the Democratic nomination. Ever since he's devoted many columns to mocking Obama's supporters and tedious screeds pointing out that he's human. (Shock!)
Brooks' point here is that Obama really should have been grumpier yesterday. The key paragraph:
But now it is more than half a year on, and the post-partisanship of Iowa has given way to the post-nationalism of Berlin, and it turns out that the vague overture is the entire symphony. The golden rhetoric impresses less, the evasion of hard choices strikes one more.
The columnist gives Obama some begrudging credit for calling for an increase in the European troop presence in Afghanistan, an unpopular position in Germany. But generally, Brooks wanted Obama to dig into the nitty gritty of foreign policy and give a wonkish policy speech to the 200,000 gathered in front of the city's "Victory Column."
What Brooks ignores is that there's a time for hard-nosed pragmatism and there's a time for hope and inspiring oratory. When 200,000 Germans gather in front of the Victory Column in the middle of the July, that is not the time to talk about chlorine baths for chickens. (Seriously. It's an issue.)
And I'm brought back to the point I made yesterday; namely, that oratory isn't worthless. It's not something you do to pass the time while the grown-ups talk in a back room. Inspiring people is important, and we do a disservice when we claim otherwise.
Considering the context of Obama's visit, it would have been inappropriate for him to stand up in front of the world and lay out the detailed foreign policy he hoped to implement in his first term as president. It would have been seen as an American senator subverting the authority and credibility of a sitting president in an international forum. In fact, the Times' political blog cited Obama's call for more troops as an unusual, perhaps unprecedented move.
There's nothing wrong with speaking vaguely and inspirationally in that environment. There will be a problem if it comes out that Obama met with Angela Merkel in private and seriously argued that the problems with Iran could be solved by joining hands and praying. There will be a problem if Obama takes office and tells his Secretary of Defense that the troops in Iraq can deflect RPGs by chanting "Yes, we can." Since there's precious little evidence that Obama's an idiot, I don't anticipate either of those revelations.
My favorite part of Brooks' column?
Obama used the word “walls” 16 times in the Berlin speech, and in 11 of those cases, he was talking about walls coming down.
Brooks would evidently like Obama to spend more time talking about the impenetrable walls that continue to divide us.
"And then there's the Great Wall of China, a tragic reminder of a time when Mongol hordes roved the Asian continent, killing and pillaging. Can't see that one coming down any time soon. Oh, and the Ebola virus. That must suck. It definitely builds a wall between people and their desire to have healthy organs. No cure for that in the offing. Also, this isn't really relevant to what I was just talking about, but I think it's important for those of you are single to know that you're probably not going to find love. You'll likely die embittered and alone. And those of you who have someone shouldn't get too comfortable; more likely than not you'll end up loathing the person you now love. Thank you, Berlin! Yes, we can!"
Brooks ended with this:
But substantively, optimism without reality isn’t eloquence. It’s just Disney.
And cynicism without intelligence isn't wisdom. It's just unpleasant.