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Abbie Tingstad Headshot

Ich bin ein... Afghaner?

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The international media was all atwitter about Barack Obama's speech in Berlin. What will he say? Will there be a large turnout? Will Obama attempt a JFK-esque statement auf Deutsch? Would he assume too much by doing so?

When it came to Obama's decision to use or not use the German language in his speech, the underlying question was not whether he would have been overstepping his bounds as a mere senator or if the act would have been considered cliché, but why he would choose to do so in the first place? To re-assert that our 'special' relationship with Germany remains 'very special'? To connect with the German people, and not just their politicians?

In the event, he didn't use any German. Which I think is a good thing. Such a statement would hardly carry the impact that it did in the Germany that Kennedy, or even Reagan, for that matter, spoke to when they uttered German phrases in their speeches in front of the Berlin Wall and Brandenburg Gate, respectively. Last I checked, Germany is a united country, well respected in political and economic spheres, and hardly in a situation where allies are in short supply. It is no longer at the heart of the political world divide. The cold war is over. In this light, Obama's speech in Germany sends a different kind of message, that is, in essence, that if he is elected, the isolated Bush years will at last be over. That's important but the equivalent of the dramatic Kennedy or Reagan speeches would have had to take place elsewhere.

Where the compassion and understanding implied by the use of a country's language in a public appearance are really needed is in the Middle East or embattled Central Asia. In particular, the use of some Farsi or Pashto words in key areas of Afghanistan would certainly send an international message of hope for a country whose problems run varied and deep. Such an act would also be consistent with Obama's platform that Afghanistan is the root of the terrorism problem and is thus a worthwhile destination for U.S. troops.

Obama is unlikely to attempt anything of this nature before November 4, the political risks too great. But it does raise the question: How should our next president react to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan?