Today's Topic



Obama Speaks in Strasbourg

Natalia J. Garland

Print Version

President Obama: please speak for yourself and not for me.

Last week, on his first world tour, President Obama gave a speech in Strasbourg, France. My personal reaction is that the speech was vague, odd, unpresidential, and open to both interpretation and imagination. His speech certainly did not represent the views of many Americans, myself included. It requires closer examination of his choice of words and phrases in order to pull out possible underlying dynamics. Since I could not find the entire speech on the White House website, I had to refer to newspaper quotations. Below are the parts from which an extraction of meaning is necessary.

America is changing but it cannot be America alone that changes.

In America, there is a failure to appreciate Europe's leading role in the world. Instead of celebrating your dynamic union and seeking to partner with you to meet common challenges, there have been times where America has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive.

But in Europe, there is an anti-Americanism that is at once casual, but can also be insidious. Instead of recognizing the good that America so often does in the world, there have been times where Europeans choose to blame America for much of what is bad.

On both sides of the Atlantic, these attitudes have become all too common. They are not wise. They do not represent the truth. They threaten to widen the divide across the Atlantic and leave us both more isolated.

They fail to acknowledge the fundamental truth that America cannot confront the challenges of this century alone, but that Europe cannot confront them without America.

I think it is important for Europe to understand that even though I am president and George Bush is not president, Al Qaeda is still a threat and that we cannot pretend somehow that because Barack Hussein Obamam got elected as president, suddenly everything's going to O.K.
[End of quotes.]

My reaction to Obama's speech will focus on: (1) Obama's listing of attitudes or feelings (a quasi-psychotherapeutic approach to government). (2) The lack of historical examples to prove his points. (3) His assumed role of a scolding parent rather than presidential leader. (4) His use of the politics of fear.

Anyone who passed 10th-grade English knows that a good paper always includes the who, where, when, why, how of the topic. Who are these arrogant Americans? The American vacationers who spend millions of dollars in the European tourism industry? Those who make religious pilgrimages to Fátima and Lourdes? The Americans whose ancestors immigrated from Europe and who maintain family ties in Europe? Those who continue to cherish the traditions of their European heritage? The American soldiers who fought in World War II to defend and free Europe? Those whose families celebrate Veterans' Day every year without bitterness or regret?

Do all Europeans blame America? Has there not always been a tension--style, manners, class distinctions, morals--between America and Europe? We are, in fact, different. We have always criticized and yet imitated one other. If Europeans blame America, then how have many Americans responded? Unfortunately, it has become politically correct for Americans to engage in self-blame and self-hate: a condition which can only exacerbate and confirm any European tendency to blame America. Likewise, Obama's speech in Strasbourg did not express patriotism or real praise for his own country, or affection for his own people.

The generalizations about Americans and Europeans only served to stereotype what might be the worst attitudes or feelings. Without specific examples, listeners were left to imagine the details. Obama's speech was a sort of psychological blank slate on which listeners could write their own examples and thereby feel congruence and affiliation with Obama. If Obama had provided historical or current examples of arrogance and blame, then some listeners would have agreed and some would have disagreed--thereby prompting debate with or possible rejection of the speaker.

Obama's tone seemed negatively parental or authoritarian. He seemed to place himself in charge of both America and Europe, scolding the two nations for equally misbehaving. Some parents do this when their children squabble and it is difficult to determine which child is at fault. Dad sees little Sally throw a handful of dirt at Billy. Dad tells Sally to stop. Sally cries and says that Billy pulled her hair. Dad did not see this, so he settles everything by telling them that they are both bad. Dad's tone is scolding and shaming. He intervenes not in order to improve the children's behavior, but to induce them to win back his approval.

If Obama wanted to evaluate two nations' attitudes and feelings (i.e., a sort of psychotherapeutic approach to international relationships), why did he not use an affirmative or strengths-based approach? Why not build on past successes? Was Obama trying to be humble and honest? If so, his honesty should have been balanced with gratitude for the instances of political cooperation between America and Europe, and with appreciation of the cultural and academic exchanges. Moreover, this type of honesty belongs in some other format, such as a panel discussion, and not in a speech delivered by an American president in a foreign country.

There was a failure to give precise examples and descriptions of situations, and definitions of certain words. When and how did America fail to partner with Europe? What are the common challenges? Exactly what is the dynamic European union that America has failed to appreciate? Who are the Europeans that blame America? Why and what for? Whatever the answers to my questions, Obama seems to believe that such attitudes will divide America and Europe politically, just as the two countries are separated geographically, and that we will become more isolated. The assumption or insinuation is that we are already severely isolated from one another, and that we cannot survive without one another. Is this not the politics of fear? Is this not another version of you're-either-for-us-or-against-us? Particularly, for or against Obama's presidency, deserving or not deserving of Obama's approval? As with his handling of the economic crisis, Obama seems to create a sense of urgency, a feeling of pending doom if we do not do things his way.

Yes, it is true, all citizens in every country should be supportive of one another in the preservation of civilization, and leaders should share in the development of solutions to the world's problems. No, America is not to blame. America has not (yet) accommodated Islamic extremism to the extent that some European countries have done so (e.g., Spain, Belgium). But many countries sent soldiers into Iraq to fight alongside Americans. Obama should have recognized and reinforced these partnerships. The obstacle, however, is that Obama says he was against the Iraq War from the beginning. Therefore, he cannot give credit to the Europeans or others for having joined with America while under Bush's leadership.

Throughout his speech--at least, the portions which I was able to access--Obama seemed to give importance, in the same stream of thought, to two concretely identifiable nouns: George W. Bush and Al Qaeda. Again, listeners are left to connect these words in their own imaginations as intrinsically belonging together in a negative way. That portion is worth repeating.

I think it is important for Europe to understand that even though I am president and George Bush is not president, Al Qaeda is still a threat and that we cannot pretend somehow that because Barack Hussein Obama got elected as president, suddenly everything's going to O.K.
[End of quote.]

Obama said ...even though I am president and George Bush is not, Al Qaeda is still a threat... What does that mean? That statement seems to put listeners in a bind. The implication seems to be that Bush caused or worsened the situation with Al Qaeda. Somehow, Bush was responsible. (...even though...) Blame seems to be put on America or, specifically, on the Bush administration. But, that statement also seems to say that Al Qaeda is a threat, period--no matter who the president was or is. Just because Barack Hussein Obama is the current president, Europeans should not expect any quick changes or improvements.

Yet, Obama campaigned on slogans of hope and change, on the assertion that he was fundamentally and effectively different from Bush, and that he was a uniter. Moreover, the use of his middle name seemed taboo during his campaign. Again, the public is put in a bind. On the one hand, Obama has been relating to world leaders as someone who has Muslim family members and who once lived in a largely Muslim country--as though this affords him a special understanding of Muslims. On the other hand, he told his audience in Strasbourg not to expect that everything is going to be O.K. just because Barack Hussein Obama is president--that is, just because he comes from a background associated with Islam.

Did Obama's speech advance the relationship between America and Europe? Although children will submit to a shame-based relationship with a parent, some adults might not succumb to such emotional manipulation. It is not a contest between Obama and Bush, but Obama and Al Qaeda. The fear of Al Qaeda and all the psychopathological byproducts (denial, delusion, blame, appeasement, etc.) might prove to be more powerful than any need for Obama's approval. After all, Obama has essentially told people, in words and tone, to cease their belief in his campaign slogans of hope and change.

How could Obama have done better? He could have appealed to history by showing his knowledge of the world's people and places, instead of relying on vague references to attitudes and feelings. He could have described and validated the accomplishments of America and Europe. He could have bravely defined the challenges ahead and role-modeled an ability to face reality. On a psychological level, he could have praised people's capacity to work together as evidenced after 9/11, encouraged people to utilize their political and cultural strengths, and motivated people to change those parts of their society that are dysfunctional. He could have given the people of Strasbourg reasons to hope.

[NOTE: A small portion of this essay was adapted from a discussion heard on Special Report w/ Bret Baier, FOX News Channel: specifically, the second sentence of the 11th paragraph.] (Written 04/13/09: bibliography available.)

Until we meet again..............stay sane.

Find More Topics in the Table of Contents

Return to Homepage


Copyright 2009 Natalia J. Garland