Begging the Spying Question?

The editors of Le Monde seem to have received advanced word on the content of President Obama’s big speech in Berlin later today. Let’s hope they’re wrong.


“Obama will propose a reduction of the American and Russian nuclear arsenals.” Good news, right?

Well yes – but that’s really not the subject his audience is going to be interested in! You just might have heard of recent revelations of programs with names like “Prism” which involved massive spying by US authorities on the telephone and electronic communications of, basically, everyone, certainly including German citizens. As NYT columnist Roger Cohen quite clearly pointed out on Monday (“Obama’s German Storm”), due to their past the Germans are particularly sensitive about such abuses. They will certainly want to hear what Obama is going to do about this, and likely not about the latest warhead-number that will result if the President can get his way with whatever measure he wants to propose.

I know that preparation for such major speeches requires long lead-times, but nonetheless if his big Brandenburg Gate speech this evening does turn out to deal solely with nuclear armament matters, it will be the sorriest attempt at mass attention-diversion we will have seen for a long, long time. And you can bet it will not work on the Germans. I hope to be able to offer some after-the-fact coverage from the German press along those lines in this forum.

But so OK: Nukes

Still, for the sake of exercise let us take these reports at their word and consider the issue of nuclear arms reductions. The Le Monde article specifically declares that Obama’s proposal will include US “tactical” nuclear weapons still stored in Europe, where many are wondering why – given the current geopolitical situation there – they were not removed a long time ago.

So far, so good. Crucially, though, such arms reductions are like a tango – they take two. What does Putin have to say about all of this? Presumably Obama had a chance to ask him at the G8 summit that just concluded in Northern Ireland. Also presumably, he did not get the answer he needed: reports indicate that that summit was far from a jolly, friendly affair, coloredas it was by the Syria question on which Russia and the US hold diametrically opposite views. Relations between the two (ex?-)superpowers in any case have been strained for quite a while (see, for example, Magnitsky Act – not that they shouldn’t be strained, given Putin’s dictatorial tendencies, or that that Act was unjustified).

So talk about putting the cart before the horse: Obama might very well be spending his time this evening before the assembled thousands at the Brandenburg Gate trying to change the subject away from US spying misbehavior to a nuclear arms reduction plan he already knows has no chance of going forward! Oh – and as Le Monde also briefly notes – even if he were to get Putin to agree, there is also the matter of the US Congress, specifically in the case of foreign treaties, of the Senate, where he would have to get a two-thirds vote to ratify and where the Republicans are known to view such military build-downs with a jaundiced eye (quite apart from their apparent desire to oppose everything the President might propose just on principle).

Gratuitous final observation: This Berlin visit is supposed to mark the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s famous Ich bin ein Berliner speech. But Kennedy delivered that speech on June 26, not June 19; at the Schöneberg Town Hall, not at the Brandenburg Gate (because, admittedly, that was impossible with the big Wall there at the time); and he didn’t have his intelligence agencies busy reading the communications of not only his own citizens, but also those of the city and the country hosting him. So there.

UPDATE: Here we have a verdict on Obama’s Brandenburg Gate speech, in the New York Times, no less, from an official of the German Green Party, Malte Spitz. Yes, she writes, what Obama did was “change the subject” from the NSA abuses which was what his German audience really wanted to hear about. She merely says he did so using his speech’s anti-global warming proposals as the foil, not those regarding nuclear arsenal cut-backs. Maybe which diversionary subject you happen to choose is a matter of interpretation, although that also supports my point that anything offered on the nuclear weapons front was fairly meaningless and so undeserving of note.

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