Some Handshakes Are More Dubious Than Others

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on April 21, 2009

The international community is atwitter over the recent friendly greeting between President Barack Obama and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez at the recently concluded Summit of the Americas. The very same leader who denounced George W. Bush as “the devil,” and who recently called President Obama an “ignoramus,” extended his hand to the President and declared “I want to be your friend.” Chavez even was kind enough to give the President a book denouncing Western imperialism. Smiles abounded between the two leaders.

Some–mostly those who are allied with President Obama–are pleased with this event. Others are not. A number of Republicans have expressed concern, and not a little outrage over the fact that the President of the United States was getting chummy with a dictator from Venezuela. Scorn has greeted the detractors, but when you unpack the scorn, you find that there isn’t much to it.

One of the scorners is the Washington Monthly’s own blogger, Steve Benen. I don’t quite mean to pick on him, but his reaction to those concerned that the President’s interactions with Chavez might send the wrong signal, is perhaps typical of the scorners. It deserves attention.

Benen notes the objections of Senator John Ensign, who calls the President to account for having “jok[ed] around” with “a brutal dictator.” Ensign’s comments are relatively mild–unless, of course, there is no such thing as a mild criticism of President Obama–but Benen replies with . . . you guessed it . . . scorn. “Quick, someone draw up articles before this monster strikes again,” he says of the President’s greeting and Ensign’s reaction to it.

Well, no one is going to draw up articles, of course–those of us on the starboard side of politics have been generally much more conservative with impeachment fantasies than those on the port side of politics ever were during the Bush Administration. But merely because articles are not going to be drawn up does not mean that the symbolism of the meeting was not misguided. Benen thinks that the meeting brought about results because “Venezuela indicated [on Saturday, April 18th] that it is considering naming an ambassador to the United States.” That’s nice, but Venezuela will name an ambassador if and only if it believes that naming an ambassador will fit in with its security interests. It won’t do so simply because Barack Obama is a charismatic guy. We had an ambassador in Venezuela who got kicked out for no reason other than that he expressed concerns over the deterioration of democracy in Venezuela. Supposing that embassies are restaffed in Washington and Caracas. What happens the next time an American ambassador speaks out against Chavez’s assault against democracy? Will that ambassador get a chance to stick around merely because Chavez was charmed by Obama?

Chances are that he/she won’t. Chances are that he/she will get kicked out, no matter how pleasant the company of the President of the United States. Perhaps Steve Benen thinks differently, but the reader is at a disadvantage in seeking to divine his thoughts; Benen, you see, didn’t type word one about the reason behind the kerfuffle over ambassadors.

We then get this:

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.

One of the reasons why Chavez does so well at the ballot box is that he just doesn’t accept losing. The principles of democracy state, however, that one must accept losses as a way of respecting the will of the people. But when his initial effort to grant himself unlimited Presidential terms failed, Chavez simply ignored popular opinion, repackaged his referendum, and won. That and other ballot box “victories” are the result of an authoritarian state, where dissent is suppressed, and dissenters are legally and physically harassed, denied jobs, denied grants, and denied microloans. Hey, if you are a Venezuelan, and if your life is made miserable as a consequence of protesting against the Chavez regime, chances are higher that you’re going to stop protesting and let Chavez have his electoral victories, right?

Again, Benen mentions nothing concerning the political environment in Venezuela. Does he really think that Chavez’s “elections” were in any way legitimate given the campaign of suppression conducted against Chavez’s opponents? If Chavez’s electoral legitimacy is a cornerstone of the argument that he must be made nice with, then the argument suffers a pretty heavy blow when one considers the fundamentally anti-democratic nature of Chavez’s regime, no?

Benen then goes into the tired, old refrain of how Kennedy dealt with Khrushchev, Nixon dealt with Mao, and Reagan dealt with Gorbachev, as a way of lecturing the rest of us that America must deal with its adversaries (as if we didn’t know that already). But in each of those circumstances, the American President dealt with a leader in possession of nuclear weapons–something Chavez does not have, and the lack of which reduces the urgency of dealing with him. And in each case, the American President carefully set the table before meeting with the interlocutors Benen discusses, and got something tangible out of those meetings. In the case of Nixon and Mao, the meetings and dealings took place to establish an alliance that would put pressure on the Soviet Union. In the case of Reagan and Gorbachev, meetings and dealings took place only after Reagan re-established American military strength and the political presence that went along with it, got the Soviets trapped in an arms race that they could not win, and forced them to opt for reform with the selection of Gorbachev. One deals with one’s adversaries, but usually, one has larger aims in mind.

What are the aims here? To get ambassadors in Washington and Caracas? Hugo Chavez has a history of expelling ambassadors on a whim, merely because they sometimes say not-nice-but-accurate things about the authoritarian nature of his government. To respect Chavez’s electoral legitimacy and chops as a democratic leader? See above–he has none. Yes, Venezuela sells us oil. But it also makes a lot of mischief in Latin America, and poses a threat to the stability of the region. To be sure, this may help solidify international opposition against Chavez, but it is also a reason for the American President to keep his distance from a tyrant who accuses others of imperialism, while practicing it himself.

The funny thing, of course, is that certain members of the Obama Administration seem to have known better than to let grip-and-grin images of Barack Obama and Hugo Chavez go viral:

. . . Obama aides were not so charitable toward Chavez. In a background briefing earlier, one senior official accused Chavez of performing for the cameras.

The official, who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity, said, “Anybody who’s been at international conferences with Chavez knows that if there’s a camera around, he’s going to find a way to get in it.”

Quite so. And allowing Chavez to mug for the cameras simply because he is a spotlight-hog–and have the President of the United States in tow as a prop–helps advance American security interests . . . how?

I write as someone who is in favor of talks with Cuba because I believe that such talks, which would include a discussion of human rights abuses in Cuba, would help put renewed pressure on the Cuban regime to liberalize, change and reform. Thus far, the embargo has brought about no palliative results, the regime didn’t skip a beat in the transition from Fidel to Raul, and it shows no signs of going away anytime soon if the status quo persists. The status quo has got to be changed and things have got to be shaken up if there is to be any hope of introducing positive change in Cuba. Talking would help address the human rights situation in Cuba in a fruitful way, while at the same time advancing American security interests.

There are security interests involved in talking to Venezuela as well, but as we have seen, Hugo Chavez is a blowhard with a lust for the spotlight–which he invariably uses to cause rhetorical and diplomatic mischief, leading at times to interventionist mischief in Latin America as well. Thus, the smart thing to do regarding Chavez is to ignore him. When Chavez is denied the spotlight, he signals to all and sundry with his statements that he is withering; sometimes, he makes it sound as if the withering is physical.

Unfortunately, the Obama Administration gave Chavez the spotlight he wanted, without getting anything of real value in return. The Obama-Chavez grip-and-grin may rank big in terms of shock value, but it achieved and will achieve little in the way of substance. All it did, in the end, was confer vast amounts of recognition upon a tyrant who did nothing to deserve it.

Postscript: Benen bemoans the deterioration of the tradition “in which elected U.S. officials refrained from attacking the U.S. presidents while they represented the country overseas.” I think I am on safe ground in saying that George W. Bush felt and feels the same way, which leads one to wonder why many of the very Democratic politicians Benen has supported never observed that tradition while President Bush was in office. It also leads one to wonder why Benen never objected to the breach of the tradition whose loss he bemoans when a Republican President occupied the White House.

Read more and comment at Pejman Yousefzadeh’s blog.

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