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Thane Rosenbaum

Thane Rosenbaum

Posted: June 6, 2009 09:27 AM

Obama at Buchenwald and Beyond

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American acknowledgment and contrition is, indeed, playing well across the globe. Very early in his administration President Obama sent welcoming words to Iran and conciliatory ones to Cuba.

Now, with his visit to Saudi Arabia and his overture to Islam in Cairo, the Arab street has become quite enamored of the American president of African descent, with his Christian roots and Muslim name. He came, he spoke Arabic, he quoted from the Koran, and he referred to his childhood in Indonesia. What's more, he acknowledged historical Arab grievances, America's colonial past, and the plight of the Palestinian people.

The president even made sure not to invoke the word "terrorist," lest he risk offending his hosts.

But from the distance of neighboring Egypt the president spoke more firmly to Israel than any other president in recent memory. There were moments when his attempts to create a reciprocal narrative resulted in a misapplied moral equivalence between Palestinian suffering and Jewish genocide, between the maintenance of Israeli settlements and the rain of terror that the PLO and now Hamas has unleashed on the Jewish state for decades.

Yes, West Bank settlements have undermined Israel's moral high ground, but the unwillingness to forsake terrorism and a complete disinterest in nation building have proven to be far greater impediments to the creation of a Palestinian homeland.

The president, tactfully and strategically, didn't speak those truths to the Arab world.

Obama's visit to the Middle East was surely not good for Al Qaeda, but it remains to be seen how much better it will be for Israel.

The tour of reconciliation continued in Germany, where the president, accompanied by the writer and humanist, Elie Wiesel, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, walked among the ghosts of Buchenwald. The president's great uncle, Charles Payne, had been among the camp's liberators in 1945; and Wiesel, a teenager then, had been among those who were liberated.

What was more probable at the time: that Barack Obama, Payne's African-American great nephew, would one day become the president of the United States, or that Elie Wiesel would leave Buchenwald and, many years and books later, would receive the Nobel Peace Prize?

Perhaps Obama's Buchenwald visit was, in part, a symbolic reassurance to Jews around the world that the president's blunt talk about Israel did not mean that he was unaware of the reasons why a Jewish state became a moral necessity after the Holocaust. In the presence of the German Chancellor and an icon of Holocaust memory, the president reminded the world (primarily the Arab world) that the Holocaust is not merely a matter of opinion but an incontrovertible fact.

As for Germany, Obama didn't go so far as to apologize for the American bombing of Dresden, but there was a tacit understanding that his recent foray abroad was largely dedicated to contrition, mutual respect, and historical memory.

Indeed, the president will soon be returning from what may be remembered as his contrition tour. The leader of the free world is, apparently, also capable of admitting American mistakes, acknowledging the grievances of others, and speaking frankly to old friends and once implacable enemies.

Obama has seemingly discarded the bully pulpit for a more inclusive healing circle. Under the Bush administration, the avowed enemies of America merely resented American freedom. In the presidency according to Obama, America has something to answer for, too.

The world is captivated by this new-look American presidency. But will the world, ultimately, respond to it? Will the change in America's tone -- the candid talk mixed with mutual respect -- enable America to exercise moral leadership and watch as other nations follow its lead? If that doesn't happen, if Al Qaeda continues to find new and eager recruits, if the Israelis and Palestinians wind up even farther apart, if Iran prepares for Armageddon and Fidel Castro nearly rises from the dead, then Obama's American makeover will be nothing but a façade, a symbolic improvement that, ultimately, had little effect on the new world order.

Perhaps adding empathy to American diplomacy is significant all by itself.

At least it all makes for terrific theater, which is not surprising for a president who recently lit up Broadway with his date-night on the Great White Way. Even before there was an Obama presidency, the Obama juggernaut always mixed statecraft with stagecraft, whether it was the raucous campaign pit stop in Berlin, the rocking Democratic Party acceptance speech in Denver, the historic campaign victory at Grant Park, and at more solemn moments, such as a visit to a Holocaust shrine.

This feel-good presidency has raised many expectations. It also features a president who knows how to take his Camelot on the road, as far away as Cairo.