Is Obama a Berliner?

The U.S. president arrives in Germany with chill hanging over relations.

BERLIN — Obama: Ist er ein Berliner? The German weekly Die Zeit posed this question a few days ahead of the U.S. president's visit to the city on Tuesday, June 18. The article -- and Obama's visit -- were timed to coincide with the 50-year commemoration of President John F. Kennedy's famous speech, but the mood here feels less a celebration of a friend in Washington right now than an expression of disappointment over revelations about his role in the NSA's vast surveillance program, which devoted considerable resources to monitoring Germany. Outrage over the PRISM program prompted Der Spiegel to describe  Obama as "The Lost Friend."

Obama's first visit as president to Berlin will stand in sharp contrast to his euphoric reception in 2008 as a candidate. As a senator, he delivered a speech to a crowd of 200,000 at Berlin's Victory Column. This time around, Obama's appearance is significantly scaled down, with at most 8,000 attendees scheduled to appear at the Brandenburg Gate, the symbol of German unification. But how much lasting damage have the latest revelations really done?

Germany's prickly response to muscular American security measures is nothing new, of course. Famously, in 2002, former Justice Minister Herta Däubler-Gmelin equated America's war on terror to Nazi Germany, saying "Bush wants to divert attention from domestic problems.... Hitler also did that." As President George W. Bush wrote in his memoir, "It was hard to think of anything more insulting than being compared to Hitler by a German official."

But in this case, the German reaction is somewhat more understandable -- and hits even closer to home. Germany, as it was revealed in documents leaked by former CIA contractor Edward Snowden, was the most monitored EU country by the National Security Agency. Anger over the snooping affair triggered Markus Ferber, a member of the European Parliament allied with Chancellor Angela Merkel's party to quip, "I thought this era had ended when the DDR fell," referring to the official name of communist East Germany. Similarly, TV host Sonia Mikich delivered a commentary on the news show Tagesthemen in which she referred to the NSA's leaked PRISM program as the "United Stasi of America" -- a reference to East Germany's notoriously repressive security service.

And yet the PRISM row is not likely to overshadow Obama's visit. A day ahead of the Merkel-Obama parley in Berlin, Merkel defused the controversy by defending Internet surveillance and her government's cooperation with the U.S. intelligence establishment. "We are quite dependent on that relationship and we also need to ensure we can act ourselves and that we aren't at the mercy of terrorists," said Merkel.

The disclosure on the weekend that Germany's foreign intelligence agency (BND) pumped an additional 100 million euros into its own Internet monitoring system further suggests that there is -- at least in official circles -- not a great deal of discomfort with the counterterrorism electronic dragnet, even given the country's troubled history with surveillance.

We still don't know much about why the NSA was targeting Germany in particular, but recent history provides a number of plausible explanations.

For example, the United States, based on actionable intelligence, issued a travel advisory warning to Germany and France in 2010 because, as it later turned out, German jihadists were on their way back from the Afghanistan/Pakistan war theater to Europe with the intention of inflicting damage on "Europe's economy." In 2011, Germany's intelligence and police services were humiliated after Frankfurt Airport employee Arid Uka, who was born in Kosovo and raised in Germany, gunned down two U.S. servicemen. Uka had become something of an online jihadi activist in the months leading up the attack. In the aftermath, German officials conceded that they lacked the trained Arabic-language specialists needed to analyze potential terror threats.

Compounding U.S. worries about nefarious individuals within Germany is the growth of members of Hezbollah and other terrorist groups in the Federal Republic. Germany's national intelligence agency, the Office for the Protection of the Constitution (Verfassungsschutz), which issued an alarming report this month documenting a spike in the number of Islamist activists in the country, from 38,080 in 2011 to 42,550 in 2012. Berlin in particular, as it turns out, is a hub of Hezbollah activists, with 250 members in the capital city, and a total of 950 throughout Germany. According to the report, the followers of Saudi Arabia's Wahhabi ideology increased from 3,800 to 4,500.

It is perhaps for these threats, among others, that Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich defended Obama in an interview with Die Welt am Sonntag over the weekend, saying is the over-the-top comparisons in the media are "not how one deals with friends that are our most important partners in the fight against terrorism."  Friedrich added that he was thankful for the close cooperation with U.S intelligence agencies, stressing that America's intelligence information prevented many terrorist attacks in the planning stages and saved lives -- a likely reference to the wave of attacks planned by the second 9/11 cell in Hamburg.

Spin aside, the recent leaks may give some of the visit's photo-ops unwanted overtones. The White House is keen to play up the JFK connection, but Obama's visit also coincides with the anniversary of the June 17, 1953, East German workers' revolt against the communist regime of Walter Ulbricht -- the first mass protest against the Soviet-DDR axis, though admittedly not an event well known outside of eastern Germany. Soviet tanks smashed the upheavals that spread across cities in the East, increasing the paranoia of the regime. Michelle Obama is slated to visit the Berlin Wall Memorial with Merkel's somber husband, Joachim Sauer.

But the complex contours of Berlin's history contrast sharply with the nut-and-bolts working relationship that marks the Obama-Merkel tenure. Though ties between Merkel and Obama are reportedly cool (she famously rejected his wish to deliver a talk in front of the Brandenburg Gate as a candidate back in 2008), the two share a common worldview and temperament. Both are pragmatic, domestically-driven problem-solvers, largely consumed with regenerating job growth, competitiveness, and infrastructure. They also share non-interventionist foreign policy instincts. Both have been reluctant to wade into the Syrian conflict, and Obama's withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan resonate with Merkel's German electorate.

In fact, the Obama's most outspoken foreign-policy critics have leveled similar criticisms of Merkel. While in Berlin last week for the Henry A. Kissinger Prize ceremony at the American Academy, Sen. John McCain told the large business daily Handelsblatt that Germany failed to show leadership during the revolts in Libya and Syria. Germany's government abstained from United Nations Security Council vote authorizing a no-fly zone in Libya and remains vehemently opposed to delivering lethal aid to the Syrian rebels. McCain said the consciousness in Germany is too narrow, and ignores the need for a "military component of foreign policy."

But on the 50-year anniversary of Kennedy's monumental tribute to the democratic bastion of West Berlin in the heart of communist East Germany, Obama will have an opportunity to make history. It's unclear what message he will relay. In 1963, Kennedy provided the world with assurance that the U.S. military had the power and will to blunt Soviet aggression. Don't count on Obama to echo this martial message of freedom: according to the White House, Obama will stress the "shared history" of German-American relations -- with views toward the past triumph over communism and the precarious challenges of contemporary international security.  

In fact, it's the U.S. president's reluctance to project American power to every corner of the globe that resonates among Germans. In a country where lingering anti-George W. Bush sentiments still run deep, this accounts for a great deal. During the former president's visit at the height of the Iraq War in 2002, Bush was met with massive anti-American protests and disruptions in parliament. And while Germans are still none too thrilled with Obama's drone policies or inability to close Guantanamo -- and now add the NSA surveillance program to that list of complaints -- at least he's not his predecessor. We'll see if that still counts for something.



G Is for Grab Bag

On the march with the motley crew of G-8 protesters in Belfast.

BELFAST, Northern Ireland — Maria Lourenco traveled from London to Belfast for Saturday's demonstration against the G8 summit in Northern Ireland. Wearing a harlequin green hat and intermittently blowing on a whistle, she marched down Royal Avenue holding a homemade banner that read: "Sorry for the inconvenience we are trying to change the world."

It was a suitably tongue-in-cheek message for a good-natured if soggy day out in Northern Ireland's capital, ahead of the meeting of world leaders which began on Monday about 75 miles away, at a golf resort on the banks of Lough Erne in rural county Fermanagh. The devolved Northern Ireland government is hoping that the summit will showcase the region internationally, but for many protesters this weekend was an opportunity to have their voices heard -- although, at times, the din of local politics threatened to drown out them out.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland, not exactly inexperienced at dealing with large, rowdy demos, had warned of swarms of protesters descending on the streets of Belfast for the trade union-organized Big March for a Fairer World, evoking memories of clashes between police and protesters ahead of the G8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, in 2005. But the hordes never materialized: most estimates put the number of marchers in Belfast on Saturday at around 1,500 to 2,000.

The rain did little to dampen the spirits of the jazz band that played "Ain't Misbehavin'" as the eclectic crowd set off from Belfast's Custom House Square a little past noon on Saturday. Among a sea of slogans and placards were men in lurid orange jumpsuits protesting U.S. President Barack Obama's failure to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center; communists marched behind a banner demanding "Workers of All Countries Unite!" Other protesters walked in solidarity with the crowds in Istanbul, calling for Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an to step down. There were also some local concerns on display. Five middle-aged protesters solemnly carried a banner in memory of the 1971 Ballymurphy Massacre, in which 11 civilians were killed by the British Army in West Belfast over the course of three days.

While Northern Ireland is relatively peaceful these days, recent months have brought an uptick in the region's long-simmering sectarian tensions, with bomb threats, attacks on police, and tense demonstrations raising fears of a return to the bad old days of the Troubles. Dropping one of the world's most high-profile summits into the middle of this combustible mix seemed like it could have been an invitation for Northern Ireland's various political actors to take advantage of a rare global spotlight.

And yet banners for Sinn Fein, the Irish nationalist party that fought the British state for 30 years and now shares power with pro-London unionists at the Northern Irish parliament at Stormont, were conspicuous by their absence. Once known as the political branch of the Irish Republican Army, Sinn Fein leaders, including former militants like Deputy First Minister Martin McGuiness, have tacked to the center since entering government, sometimes to the frustration of their longtime supporters. The G8 has proved problematic for Sinn Fein, however: though its leaders have welcomed the summit, many rank-and-file are opposed. Some notable Sinn Fein figures were among the marchers, including former Lord Mayor of Belfast Niall Ó Donnghaile. Sinn Fein is, after all, still a very left-wing party and many of its members are opposed to U.S. foreign policy and free trade.

At the rear of the march, members of Eirigi, a splinter republican group that opposes the peace process in Northern Ireland, demanded "Imperialists out of Ireland." Rows of police in bulletproof vests and special G8 caps watched on silently, occasionally flanked by bemused-looking shoppers. Security forces adduced the potential for dissident republican violence for Saturday's heavy police presence -- anti-ceasefire republicans have become increasingly active; in March, for instance, police in Derry intercepted a van with four live mortar bombs. 

An extra 3,600 police have been shipped in from the rest of Britain for the summit, in what has been billed as the biggest policing operation in the history of Northern Ireland. As the march passed peacefully on the ground, helicopters buzzed overhead. Armored Land Rovers lined the streets around Belfast City Hall. Nearby, four armed police stood guard outside a Starbucks. "There's more police here than protesters," said one anti-capitalist activist who asked not to be named.

While clashes between police and black-masked anarchists have become a fixture of global summit meetings, when the police in Belfast were called into action this weekend, they were dealing not with anti-G8 demonstrators but with local loyalists, as those who support British rule over Northern Ireland are known. Since the end of last year, loyalists have been protesting a decision by Belfast City Council to fly the Union flag from City Hall on designated days, rather than all-year-round as was protocol previously. Decreasing numbers of loyalist protesters have attended the weekly Saturday vigil outside the gates of City Hall, but on Saturday around 100 gathered again. (Unfortunately for the optics, the Union Jack actually did happen to be flying over City Hall during their demonstration.)   

As the Big March for a Fairer World reached its end at City Hall, loyalists were heard shouting "Ulster is British" and singing "The Billy Boys," a football fight song with sectarian connotations sung to the old U.S. Civil War tune, "Marching Through Georgia." But these groups had little sympathy for the rest of the crowds on the streets of Belfast. Loyalist leader Billy Hutchinson, who was present on Saturday, said some loyalists saw the anti-G8 protests as "anti-British" and wanted to be sure they were there to make their presence known.

Police worked to separate loyalists from anti-G8 demonstrations as Pamela Dooley, chair of the Northern Ireland committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, which organized Saturday's march, and who took the stage to tell demonstrators that the protest was a defining moment in history. "As we meet here today, over one billion people on the planet are living in extreme poverty and are facing starvation, malnutrition, and early death," she said.

Despite Saturday's tension, the mere fact that the G8 summit is taking place in Northern Ireland -- even surrounded by miles of barbed-wire security fence in a remote part of the country -- attests to how much has changed since the Troubles ended. Just four miles away from the Lough Erne resort where Barack Obama, David Cameron, and other world leaders are meeting is the market town of Enniskillen. Here, in 1987, a massive IRA bomb killed 11 observers at a Remembrance Sunday ceremony.

The visiting world leaders have not ignored the symbolic significance of the meeting's setting. On Monday, in a speech delivered at Belfast's Waterfront Hall, Obama hailed Northern Ireland's peace process as a "blueprint" for conflicts around the world. The U.S. president acknowledged that tensions remain between nationalists and unionists, particularly in deprived parts of the country. "The terms of peace may be negotiated by political leaders, but the fate of peace is up to each of us," he said.

Peace -- and security -- have dominated discussions in Northern Ireland ahead of the G8, largely drowning out policy concerns. "From the very beginning, the G8 was treated like we had got the Oscars. Visiting politicians have been treated like celebrities, and the narrative has all been about how do we protect them," said Niall Bakewell, Northern Ireland activism coordinator with the environmental group Friends of the Earth. Dr Jonny Byrne, a lecturer in the school of criminology, politics, and social policy at the University of Ulster, agreed, noting that "the security around the G8 and subsequent policing of the protests has drowned out the real issues under discussion in terms of tax and Syria."

The days ahead should provide an opportunity for such debates, with indications that both Syria and tax evasion will feature prominently at this year's summit. One issue, with both local and global implications, that campaigners had been hoping to put on the public agenda ahead of the G8 is fracking. Fermanagh, where the summit is being held, has emerged as the battleground between opponents and supporters of the controversial mining technique in Ireland.

On Saturday, Bakewell and other environmentalists walked behind a purpose-built model of a fracking drill hole. While attempts to frack elsewhere on the island have largely come to standstill, Australian exploration company Tamboran Resources has a license to drill for gas in Fermanagh, just a few miles from where the summit is taking place. Tamboran is expected to start fracking operations there next year, with many fearful that the anticipated 1800 well bores could ruin the picturesque county.

The Northern Irish government has regularly cited tourism as a major argument in favor of hosting the G8 summit. Earlier this month, North Ireland's minister for enterprise, trade and investment, Arlene Foster of the Democratic Unionist Party, told students in Enniskillen that "this historic event will be a catalyst in the ongoing development of Fermanagh as an immensely attractive and high quality destination to visit in Northern Ireland." With unemployment above the British average and vacancy rates in shops among the highest in the country, the region needs any boost it can get. But few seem so sure of the summit's tourist potential. "Who books their holidays based on where the G8 was?" asked Bakewell. "Nobody, that's who."

This week may be unlikely to provide a significant economic boost to Northern Ireland, but its political leaders will hope to bask in the afterglow of an orderly, peaceful event long after the G8 wagons leave town -- so long as the locals cooperate.