What Obama's grip and grin with Hugo Chávez says about his foreign policy.
It's been so long since we've had a president disposed to diplomacy that many observers don't know what to think when they see one.
Take President Barack Obama's recent trip to the Summit of the Americas. At his April 19 press conference at Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, he delivered—spontaneously, in response to a question—an eloquent summary of what an "Obama doctrine" might be, a succinct appraisal of the nature of power and foreign policy in the post-Cold War world.
And yet the media for the most part ignored this display of strategic acumen and focused on a moment, two days earlier, at the summit's opening ceremony, when Obama, approached by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, smiled and shook his hand.
One Republican senator gasped that it was "irresponsible" for the president to be "laughing and joking" with "one of the most anti-American leaders in the entire world." Former Vice President Dick Cheney grumbled on Fox News that the handshake "was not helpful" and could lead America's foes to "think they're dealing with a weak president." NBC's Andrea Mitchell likened the cordial greeting to John F. Kennedy's Vienna summit with Nikita Khrushchev in June 1961, when the Soviet premier sized up the young president as a lightweight and, as a result, sent missiles to Cuba, sparking the gravest crisis of the nuclear era.
To which one can only respond: Are these people serious?
It might be a good thing for politicians and reporters to read a little history before indulging in historical analogies.
At the Vienna summit, Khrushchev warned Kennedy that if the West didn't give up its access rights to West Berlin by the end of the year, he would declare war and grab the city by force. At the time, the Soviet Union had 3 million troops occupying Eastern Europe, backed by an arsenal of nuclear weapons (though not as many as the United States thought), the two superpowers were locked in global ideological conflict, and the free enclave of West Berlin was landlocked 100 miles inside East German territory. Kennedy came away thinking he might face the prospect of war in a matter of months.
At the Americas summit, Chávez came up to Obama at a reception while cameras were whirring and handed him a book. Venezuela is a tiny country with one large oil company, a military budget barely 1 percent that of the United States, and no ability to project power beyond its borders.
When asked about this tête-à-tête at his press conference, Obama—properly—laughed off the criticism. He acknowledged Chávez's "inflammatory" anti-American rhetoric and their "great differences" on economic and foreign policy. However, he added:
It's unlikely that, as a consequence of me shaking hands or having a polite conversation with Mr. Chávez, that we are endangering the strategic interests of the United States.
Anyone who thinks otherwise, I would add, must be a little bit crazy.
The shockwaves over the handshake might best be explained as a hangover from the long years of George W. Bush's presidency, when dealings with those who disliked us were expressly forbidden, out of a vague fear that such contact might debilitate us or legitimize them. This fear is what was "not helpful." It tended to elevate the standing of a pipsqueak like Chávez; it made him seem more ominous than he was, and it made America seem like a he-man who's frightened by a mouse. By contrast, Obama's insouciant civility, far from appearing weak, strikes a chord of sense and self-confidence.
But our current president's approach isn't merely about polishing America's image; it also stands to serve America's tangible interests. And this is where his remarks on an "Obama doctrine" come into play.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Barack Obama and Hugo Chávez above and on Slate's home page by Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images.