Obama and Chavez: BFFs?

President Obama met the Tyrant Chavez at the Summit of the Americas on Friday — you know, because both men are leaders of countries in the Americas — and, according to Republican Senator John Ensign of Nevada, behaved irresponsibly by “laughing and joking” with him.

Now, I have been a consistent and persistent critic of Hugo Chavez. As a liberal, I am opposed to all forms of tyranny, whether of the left or of the right. I would rather not have Obama, or any Amerian president for that matter, making nice with, let alone seeming to be a close friend of, a tyrant like Chavez (and you can find my many posts about him here). For example, it would be inappropriate (to put it mildly) for Obama to invite, say, Kim Jong-il over to the White House for some bowling and movies.

But Obama didn’t treat Chavez like a BFF, nor even like an ally, he just treated him like a fellow world leader. From what I can tell, which is probably just as much as Ensign can tell, the two men shook hands, smiled, and exchanged pleasantries — and Chavez gave Obama an anti-American book (which is not the same as Obama agreeing with Chavez’s anti-Americanism).

Were they “laughing and joking”? Well, perhaps Chavez saw his meet-and-greet with Obama as an opportunity to bond, but I highly doubt that Obama was being anything other than polite.

Steve Benen puts it well:

Chances are, President Obama would like to improve relations with our adversaries, and shook Hugo Chavez’s hand out of a sense of international diplomacy. The efforts appear to possibly be paying dividends — Venezuela indicated yesterday that it is considering naming an ambassador to the United States.

To be sure, Chavez is an odious figure. But he’s also the twice-elected head of state of a large South American country with 30 million people. GOP rhetoric notwithstanding, there’s no downside to improving our relations with the country’s leadership.

This may be difficult for Ensign to understand, but sometimes, U.S. presidents meet foreign leaders we’re not fond of. Once in a while, U.S. presidents even negotiate with foreign leaders who are clearly our adversaries — Kennedy talked to Khrushchev, Nixon talked to Mao, Reagan talked to Gorbachev.

Are we to believe it’s scandalous for Obama to simply shake hands — not negotiate, not strike any deals, not come to any agreements, just press the flesh — with the Venezuelan president? That a simple handshake undermines the “prestige of the United States”?

Obviously, it doesn’t. The U.S. is a strong enough country, and Obama is a strong enough leader, not to let a handshake mean anything more than a handshake. Indeed, to suggest that a handshake is enough to weaken “the prestige of the United States and the presidency of the United States,” as Ensign did, is to suggest that America’s prestige is nothing but a thin and vulnerable veneer, that America is in fact too weak to be able to withstand such niceties. Conservatives make the same argument in opposing diplomacy with Iran, but it is the complete opposite that is true: Talking to Tehran, like shaking hands with Chavez, is a sign of strength, and can be approached from a position of strength.

Obama didn’t prostrate himself before Chavez, nor did the two make an expression of their undying love for one another. They just shook hands. Republicans may predictably try to score political points by making more of that than there was, but there really was nothing more to it than that.

(Cross-posted from The Reaction.)