Obama's Brandenburg Gate controversy

By STEFAN NICOLA, UPI Germany Correspondent   |   July 14, 2008 at 5:17 PM

BERLIN, July 14 (UPI) -- Not everyone wants presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama to speak in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. Even the Obama team now seems ready to change plans after a dispute inside the German government began to damage the senator's campaign.

To Germans, the Brandenburg Gate is a special venue. It is laden with historic significance. For decades it represented the partition of one country into two, and since Germany's reunification it stands for one of Europe's most significant peaceful revolutions.

Since Spiegel Online reported Obama, D-Ill., wanted to address crowds at the gate, the German media have speculated about the when and how, with some people lauding the idea and others criticizing it.

Klaus Wowereit, Berlin's mayor, and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier have said Obama should speak in front of the gate. The problem for Obama is that Germany's most important politician, Chancellor Angela Merkel, has been a bit reserved about the senator's venue of choice.

Her spokesman said last week she had only "limited understanding" that Obama was planning a campaign speech in front of the gate, where U.S. President Ronald Reagan urged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to "open this gate" and "tear down this wall."

Merkel is not willing to give the impression that Berlin is officially endorsing Obama's candidacy: Merkel, a center-right Christian Democrat, has closer political ties to Republican candidate John McCain of Arizona.

Merkel underlined, however, that she had scheduled a meeting with Obama and is "very happy about the visit, especially because I do not know him personally yet."

The bickering in Germany is surely met with bewilderment by the Obama team. It could even embarrass him at home: If Obama insists, and the German government denies him the Brandenburg Gate speech, it would certainly be interpreted negatively.

Obama "could be seen as somewhat arrogant, as presumptuous" if he contradicted Merkel's wishes, Politico.com quoted an American advising the German government.

Bill Galston, once an adviser to U.S. President Bill Clinton, told British newspaper The Telegraph the Obama campaign "had been a bit naive."

"It shows a certain inexperience about complex foreign issues, which is, of course, the opposite of the impression they are trying to create," he said.

Over the weekend, the senator tried to play down the controversy, saying he would not mind speaking elsewhere in Berlin.

"We had been trying to coordinate with folks on the ground in terms of finding an appropriate site, but we didn't have a particular site in mind,'' Obama told reporters en route to San Diego from Chicago. "I want to make sure that my message is heard, as opposed to creating a controversy, so our goal is just for me to lay out how I think about the next administration's role in rebuilding our trans-Atlantic alliance, so I don't want the venue to be a distraction."

The coordination with officials on the ground is ongoing. The German press already has reported that Obama, who is hugely popular in Germany, will arrive in Berlin July 24. To clarify the final details of the visit, an Obama team traveled to the German capital Monday, government spokesman Thomas Steg said on the same day.

Referring to the gate, Steg said, "It's possible that this particular place no longer has the very highest preference."

Another option is the Gendarmenmarkt, a large square built in the city center in the late 18th century.

One thing's for sure, however: Like many politicians before him, Obama will walk through the Brandenburg Gate, Germany's mass-selling daily newspaper Bild said Monday. He also will visit Checkpoint Charlie, the famous crossover point between East and West Berlin during the Cold War that was the site of a standoff between U.S. and Russian tanks in 1961.

The most recent standoff -- the one about the Brandenburg Gate -- will be over by Wednesday, Bild said. Then, the Obama team and the city of Berlin will have decided over the details of the visit.

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