Germans were among Barack Obama’s foremost fans when he first ran for president in 2008. That country had been among the leading opponents of the Iraq War at the UN, joining France on the UN Security Council to push back against George W. Bush and Tony Blair’s efforts to rally support for action against Saddam Hussein. Anti-Americanism ran high in German politics and popular culture–until Obama rose to prominence.
That is why the Obama campaign chose Berlin to stage the centerpiece of the candidate’s Europe trip. Obama had wanted to speak in front of the Brandenburg Gate, to establish himself as the answer to Ronald Reagan–a leader who would break down walls not through confrontation but through connection. German Chancellor Angela Merkel denied him that spot, so he spoke at the Victory Column–ironically, a nationalist monument.
Before a crowd of 200,000 cheering fans, Obama promised an era of improved relations between “allies who will listen to each other, learn from each other and, most of all, trust each other.” Presumably, by “listening,” Obama did not mean eavesdropping on Merkel’s telephone conversations. Yet that is what Obama’s promises have come to, and the only question is whether Obama knew about the NSA surveillance or chose not to know.
Earlier this year, President Obama returned to Berlin–this time to speak at the Brandenburg Gate, albeit before a much smaller crowd. He reiterated his praise for the U.S. alliance with Germany, and emphasized the importance of individual freedom and dignity. He pointed out that he was speaking on the eastern side of the gate, celebrating democracy in a place that had been a communist dictatorship for over four decades.
Germans reflecting on that speech now might well wonder whether Obama’s commitment to rights and dignity is consistent with spying practices reminiscent of the famously intrusive Stasi, the East German secret police. According to one German newspaper, Obama knew of the spying program as early as 2010, and did not stop it. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, says he did not learn until last summer.
Regardless, the fact that Merkel has emerged as the central victim of the NSA’s eavesdropping program is a particularly glaring betrayal. Germans, like other Europeans, have viewed Obama’s administration more positively than that of his predecessor–yet their impressions of Obama have also declined somewhat since he took office. Now that a troubling reality has overtaken the dreams of 2008, that decline may accelerate.