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In Berlin, Obama pays tribute to Berliners and Western values

10:15 AM, Jun 19, 2013   |    comments
President Barack Obama (Getty Images)
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BERLIN – President Obama told Berliners in a speech Wednesday at the iconic Brandenburg Gate that he was proud to pay tribute to a city that was divided for decades after World War II by a wall erected by the former totalitarian Soviet Union.

"It is citizens who choose whether to be defined by a wall or whether to tear it down," Obama said. "We can say here in Berlin, here in Europe, our values won."

Obama called for a reduction in nuclear stockpiles to the cheers of crowd members who waved U.S. and German flags.

Obama addressed a crowd of 5,000 invited guests at the historic landmark in the center of Berlin, a far smaller audience than the estimated 200,000 people who came to see the then presidential candidate give a foreig policy speech in 2008.

Back then, many Germans expressed the hope that Obama would reverse some of the anti-terror policies of then President George W. Bush, whose wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were unpopular with the largely pacifist views of the German majority.

Berliners say they are less excited about this visit and have been disappointed that he has not delivered on promises he made previously.

"He's still better than George W. Bush in terms of being open to the rest of the world and cooperation, but this vast change of the mindset in America, I don't think we've seen," said Elizabeth Osterloh, an American living in Berlin and doing an MBA in transatlantic management.

"I feel like he hasn't sent a clear enough signal yet with actions rather than his speeches for the rest of the world," she added.

Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel met in the morning to discuss issues including the war in Afghanistan, the Middle East Peace Process, Iran, the European debt crisis, the conflict in Syria and a transatlantic free trade agreement. Obama said it would be "humbling" to speak at the iconic gate today.

"(I am) a president that can do this in front of a gate that is now open," he said in a nod to President Reagan's Tear Down This Wall Speech" more than two decades ago, which he delivered from the 18th century gate when the city was divided between West Germany and Soviet-controlled East Germany.

"It's a humbling thing - to speaks on the other side of the wall that once stood there, that Reagan insisted be torn down, and is now gone."

Speaking at a joint press conference with Merkel ahead of the speech, Obama noted that it was "wonderful to be back in Berlin," before adding, "Europe is our partner in almost everything we do" and the region is a "cornerstone of our freedom and security."

He briefly mentioned some of the progress made in Syria-related talks at the Group of Eight meeting in Northern Ireland and also talked about the difficulties faced in peace negotiations with the Taliban. He also said "lives have been saved" and threats have been averted around the globe because of the controversial global Internet anti-terror spying program of the National Security Agency (NSA).

In recent weeks, Obama has been the subject of intense criticism over the NSA program, that included the surveillance of German citizens. Germany, whose history has planted a deep-rooted distrust of any sort of surveillance, has strict data-privacy laws, and the revelations of Washington's intrusion into millions of phone calls and emails has struck a nerve here.

Merkel, who is keen to secure voters' support ahead of federal elections in September, confirmed the topic came up in her meeting with Obama. She said proportionality and balance are important when it comes to surveillance.

But analysts say her government - and Germans - should not be surprised by the prism program.

"It would be naïve to think we're not being snooped on by the Americans, the Russians, the Chinese, you name it. What's the big surprise? Finally somebody confirms what everybody with a clear mind was already suspecting," said Josef Braml, a transatlantic affairs expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations.

On Syria, Obama and Merkel played down the differences with Russia that emerged again during discussions at the G-8 summit in Northern Ireland earlier this week. Obama said that all the G-8 nations including Russia were on the same page when it came to reaching a negotiated political settlement for Syria through a transitional body.

"We have a steady consistent policy on Syria - we want a peaceful, non-sectarian, tolerant and democratic Syria, we want to end the bloodshed," said Obama. "We want to make sure that chemical weapons are not used and do not fall into the hands of people who will use them. The best way to get there is a political transition...and it is not possible for Assad to regain legitimacy (to be part of it) with more than 100,000 killed and millions displaced already."

He said that while Russia was skeptical over claims of the use of chemical weapons and Russian leader Vladimir Putin believed "what would replace Assad might be worse."

Obama's wife Michelle and their daughters, Sasha and Malia, will be taking a tour of the famous former frontline of the Cold War at Checkpoint Charlie and visiting the memorial of the Berlin Wall at Bernauer Street.

The 26-hour visit to Berlin will cap a three-day sojourn for Obama to Europe where he took part in the Group of Eight summit with leaders from countries including the United Kingdom, Germany and France.

(USA Today)

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