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Posted by on Apr 20, 2009 in At TMV | 21 comments

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.)

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  • mlhradio

    I find it ironic that some of the ODS-suffering complainers are whining that President Obama is acting, well, presidential. Perhaps they can’t remember the last time that we had a president that behaved in professional and diplomatic manner, which is why they are shocked, shocked! at his actions. (Actually, it’s kinda sad that some people would take umbrage that a president would do what a president is supposed to do – have the standards of civility among the right wing fallen that far?)

  • AustinRoth

    OK, I know everyone hates the ‘what if it was Bush’, but really, what if it was Bush acting that way towards a Right-wing dictator. I can’t see the Left dismissing that as ‘acting Presidential’.

    • Rambie

      What if it was Bush?… What if it was Clinton?… What if it was Regan?

      I’m not doubting that some on the far-left would have a tizzy fit AR.

      Just because some on the far ends of our political spectrum act like 12-year-old-girls, doesn’t make it OK for the other side -nor the rest of us- to act that way.

      Remember when Conservatives acted adult and actually made politically and fiscally sound arguments? I do, and I actually miss that.

      Sorry for the insult to 12-year-old-girls

  • Agree, mlhradio, but it’s great for the Dems that every action from shaking a foreign leader’s hand to getting a dog generates raving on the right against Obama, who is greatly loved. Each new fit of idiotic rage further damages the GOP, as young voters shake their heads at the trivial tripe that trash talking wing nuts throw Obama’s way for things that seem to most people to be huge NON-issues.

    • AustinRoth

      No GD, dyed-in-the-wool Liberals certainly see this as nothing, but that is not everyone, or all young people, as you try to pretend.

  • rudi

    AR – If you go into a meeting with an adversary, a simple greeting doesn’t translate into concessions behind closed doors. Remember Teddy R didn’t say smack ’em withn that big stick.

  • AR, you’re usually more rational that that comment. Speaking for myself, I wouldn’t break a sweat no matter whose hand Bush shook. I think you probably see how getting into a lather over a handshake or a bow hurts the GOP more than Obama. By all means, keep it up.

  • Equating Kim Jong-il and Chavez is a little odd.

    Chavez aint a great guy, but why do we have to pretend he’s the next Stalin?

  • kathyedits

    Well said, Chris; I totally agree.

    I’d also like to take issue a bit with Michael’s characterization of the book Chavez gave Obama. And this is nothing against Michael at all; everyone, from bloggers to mass media, who has written about this story, has called the book “anti-American” in the context of reporting that Chavez gave a copy to Obama.

    As it happens, I own a copy of that book, I have read it (albeit many years ago), and it is not “anti-American.” Yes, it is a history of foreign intervention in Latin America — which, not to distress those who believe that America is the center of the universe, but it was not the only country to invade, try to control, and/or profit handsomely off of the resources of, Latin America. The book is a history — note that word, HISTORY — of Latin American as it has been shaped and effected culturally, historically, politically, by over five centuries of European involvement and exploitation. The U.S. is a significant part of that, but not the only part, and it did not start with the U.S.; it started with the European conquerors, and at that time there WAS no United States, okay?

    The history of Latin America is what it is. You can use harsh language, like conquering, pillaging, exploiting, etc., or you can use softer language, like discovering, exploring, mining, profiting, protecting, liberating, etc., but the events, actions, and overall historicity are the same.

    The term “anti-American” is specious in its common usage, which is as a way of characterizing any writing or speech that refers to the United States in a less than laudatory manner. Is it anti-Russia to write about the evils of Stalinism? Is it anti-Japan to write about that country’s brutal occupation of Korea, which is a matter of historical record? Is it anti-American for a native Latin American writer and scholar to examine the history of Latin America from a Latin American perspective rather than from an American business perspective? If telling the history of a continent in a truthful, realistic, historically accurate way is “anti-American,” then I suppose the alternative is telling that history in a distorted, ahistorical, unduly rosy way. I prefer the first way.

  • PWT

    What if he had just stood there, like a man, with his hand at his side an merely acknowledged Chavez with a nod? I doubt that the left would care, the right would be unusually joyful and Chavez and his people would know where they stand. Opportunity lost.

  • rudi

    Larison puts this all into perspective without the obvious wingnut slant. (He’s right but not a WN)

    Reagan LOves dictators LOOL…

    Catching up on news from the last few days, I came across this Gingrich gem as I was following the ongoing pseudo-controversy about Obama’s handshake with Hugo Chavez at the Summit of the Americas. The interview was unremarkable FoxNews chatter, complete with calls for more domestic oil drilling, except for Gingrich’s hilariously ahistorical reference to the Carter administration as “pro-dictator.” In reality, it was the Reagan administration that was rather more obviously pro-dictator…
    Indeed, one of the main, largely correct criticisms of Carter from the right was that he was too willing to sell out anticommunist and other allied dictators for the sake of maintaining a foolish, self-defeating consistency on democracy promotion…

  • kathyedits,
    Confronting the mistakes in our past is a difficult challenge. Too many of us are disciples of the Church of American Exceptionalism.

  • PWT: merely acknowledged Chavez with a nod? I doubt that the left would care, the right would be unusually joyful and Chavez and his people would know where they stand. Opportunity lost.

    No, the right will not be joyous about anything Obama does, but would have been robbed of an opportunity to come off as raving lunatics, coming unhinged over a handshake. As an Obama supporter, I submit that this was yet another opportunity gained. The ranting on the right is hurting them. I fully support all ranting and raving about everything from handshakes to the Obamas dog. Go for it, by all means.

  • PWT

    raving lunatics

    kettle: “who are you calling black, pot?”

  • HemmD


    So you are saying that this book isn’t anti-American, but that people are characterizing as such in the press? Who would have thought that could happen?

    Great explanation of the radical literature being foisted upon our president. If we can keep him and everybody else from reading this, maybe we can keep foreign policy as the “shaken fist” and “non-committal nod” that so many wish to maintain.

  • PWT. You said “like a man”. A man knows when a hand is extended and not taken, it’s an insult, and a childish one. And your “I’m rubber, you’re glue” is similarly pointless.

    Actions speak louder than words, to complete the cliche fest. Neither Bush, nor the GOP, nor you, I’ll bet, are willing NOT to buy Venezuelan oil. Hence you insult the man and hand him a check. I’d laugh at you if I were Chavez. We do not insult the Chinese, and we grant them most favored nation status, shake their hands, etc. Is that because they are not tyrants? Because they support our values and we theirs? Because they are such outstanding exemplars of democracy? That, PWT, is hypocrisy.

    Like it or not, most Americans do not buy into this hyperventilating, and juvenile attacks like overreacting to a handshake or a bow are hurting you, not Obama. Again, I fully encourage your side to keep fuming about every little detail.

  • PWT

    Less than one month ago, Mr. Chavez referred to Mr. Obama as an ‘ignoramus’. That, is a childish insult. Being a man, I tend not to shake the hands of people who wish me ill or refer to me as an ignoramus – the same stance that Mr. Obama should have taken, again Opportunity Lost.

    If there was a way not to buy Venezuelan oil, I wish that we could. As an aside, I only drive to and from the train station on a daily basis and put less that 1700 miles on my car each year, the price of oil is of little concern to me. But back to your rant. We do not insult the Chinese, because they do not insult us. On that not, I might observe that for an older man, you tend to be quite free with the ad hominem attacks and insults, too bad, it truly takes away from your ability to make a reasonable argument.

  • I agree that Chavez’s insult was childish. Obama did not respond childishly, to his credit. Our country is putting appearance over substance, which is ineffective and self-demeaning. When we huff and puff, as Bush did, as I see the current GOP doing, then hand over a fat check, we make fools of ourselves. Yet I see the GOP again making a big deal over the symbolism of a public courtesy while still forking over the cash.

    BTW, I’ve reread my comments. I made no ad-hominem attacks against you or others. I expressed my opinion that the current behavior of making too much of the symbolism of a handshake is childish. That is still my opinion. If you take offense at that, well…

  • kathyedits

    Too many of us are disciples of the Church of American Exceptionalism.

    Or, as my brother puts it, citizens of the United States of Amnesia.

  • green4989

    Hat’s off. Well done, as we know that “Hard work always pays off”, after a long struggle with sincere efforts it’s done.

  • lukeweyland

    Chavez is no dictator – unlike the rulers of Saudi Arabia, Brunei, Colombia, Egypt, Libya , and Peoples Republic of China . All USA’s frends.

    Chavez’s ‘crimes’ are these – he opposed the US lead invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq as well as Israels attack on the Lebanese and Palestinian peoples.

    Every Venezuelan Election has had international observers who found the elections to be free and fair. The Media in Venezuela, is dominated by press barons who are veremently anti-socialist.

    Various State and local governments in venezuela have right wing majorities.
    People freely protest in pulpits, parliaments, universities, parks, streets, on the media – even that owned by the government !

    Around 60% of Venezuela’s trade is with the United States. Only extremist idealogues like Bush would oppose United States working with Venezuela and Chavez.

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