Accessibility links

Obama's Outreach To Foes Angers Some In Washington

  • Heather Maher

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (right) with U.S. President Barack Obama at the 5th Summit of the Americas in Port Spain in mid-April; Chavez gave Obama a copy of Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano's "Open Veins Of Latin America."

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (right) with U.S. President Barack Obama at the 5th Summit of the Americas in Port Spain in mid-April; Chavez gave Obama a copy of Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano's "Open Veins Of Latin America."

WASHINGTON -- Some are calling it "irresponsible." Others "historic." It lasted only a few seconds, but the resulting furor in Washington is unlikely to die down anytime soon.

"It" is the handshake that Barack Obama exchanged with the fiery leftist president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, at the summit of western hemisphere leaders in Trinidad and Tobago last weekend.

For the record, there were actually three handshakes: the first was accompanied by mutual pats on the back; another came when Chavez surprised Obama in front of photographers with a book on the history of U.S. and European meddling in Latin America; and the third during a photo session that saw Obama reaching behind the heads of the presidents of Ecuador and El Salvador to get to Chavez.

The Venezuelan leader later told reporters he couldn't refuse.

"I appreciate his gesture of drawing close directly to shake my hand," Chavez said. "I could not reject such a sensitive gesture, and I took advantage and said to him the same thing I said to Bush eight years ago, shaking his hand at the Summit of the Americas in Canada: 'I want to be your friend.'"

Chavez had to know that dropping the name of former President George W. Bush would resurrect bitter memories in Washington of the Venezuelan leader's speech at the United Nations in 2006, in which he compared Bush to the devil.

So it's unsurprising that the exchanges raised eyebrows in Washington, where Chavez is openly despised for his vehement anti-Americanism.

Despite some broad praise for Obama's performance at the summit -- he was lauded him for "reaching out to longtime enemies" and his efforts were compared to "the stunning realignments sought by former Soviet leader Mikheil Gorbachev" -- there have been cries of outrage, as well.

The Right Says 'Wrong'

The protests have come mostly from from Republican Party leaders who believe Obama committed an unthinkable act that made America look weak.

Newt Gingrich, a powerful former speaker of the House of Representatives, accused Obama of encouraging "enemies of America" and sending "a terrible signal about how the new administration regards dictators."

Two Republican senators, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire and John Ensign of Nevada, have also weighed in, calling it "irresponsible" and "not a good way to start [a] presidency."

Among the most caustic of insults that Republicans hurl at a Democratic president has also been lobbed: Obama has now officially been compared to former President Jimmy Carter.

James Roberts, a Latin American specialist and former State Department official at Washington's right-leaning Heritage Foundation, is one of the critics. His chief complaint is that the president of the United States has a responsibility to behave like the leader of the free world, and Obama didn't do that at the recent summit.

"Chavez should have been slapped down in some way, not permitted to glory-hound his way onto the front pages, really make the United States look weak, which was his goal, apparently, [in] handing the book over, the glad handing," Roberts says. "It was pretty calculated, but it could have been avoided if President Obama had wanted to avoid it."

Roberts faults Obama for not meeting with America's Latin American allies on the sidelines of the meetings -- Brazil, Columbia, Chile, Peru, Mexico -- and discussing free-trade issues.

Instead, he says, Obama stood by silently as leftist leaders like Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega and Bolivia's Evo Morales embarrassed the United States with anti-American "rants."

Exuding Confidence?

Michael Shifter, vice president for policy at the nonpartisan Inter-American Dialogue and a professor of Latin American politics at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, arguably represents the wider view in Washington, which is that the fuss over Obama's pleasantries with Chavez is "much ado about nothing."

Shifter says he believes that ignoring or confronting Chavez would have undermined the U.S. position, while responding to the book and handshake "made the United States look confident."

He also believes that the reaction of some Republicans to Obama's performance in Latin America is part of a bigger effort to attack the U.S. president in an area they see as his weakness: foreign policy. Similar critiques were heard after Obama returned from his European tour.

Far from weakening the U.S. position, Obama is projecting power, Shifter says.

"There is the projection of sort of soft power that he's trying to present to convey the best of the United States. I think what was striking is, so far we've seen in Latin America [he] acknowledged failure on two major Latin American policies: Cuba and drugs," Shifter says. "[He] said they haven't worked. And I think that's part of his approach, to say, 'You know, we recognize that what we've done hasn't worked and we have to try something else.' But he also asked something of Latin Americans, as he did with Europeans."

New Tack

Obama is familiar with criticism of his style of foreign policy. He spent much of the two years he campaigned for president defending his belief that reaching out a hand to U.S. adversaries makes the United States stronger.

Before this latest summit, he made a point of announcing that he planned to do more listening than talking. But even before he boarded his plane back to Washington, he was asked to explain his reaction to Chavez.

"It was a nice gesture to give me a book; I'm a reader. And you're right, we had this debate throughout the campaign," Obama said. "And the whole notion was is that somehow, if we showed courtesy or opened up dialogue with governments that had previously been hostile to us, that that somehow would be a sign of weakness. And the American people didn't buy it. And there's a good reason the American people didn't buy it: because it doesn't make sense."

At that final press conference, Obama also said that he has "great differences" with Chavez on matters of economic and foreign policy, and he called Chavez's rhetoric toward the United States "inflammatory."

"On the other hand," he added, given that Venezuela's military budget is a tiny fraction of the United States', "it's unlikely that as a consequence of me shaking hands or having a polite conversation with Mr. Chavez that we are endangering the strategic interests of the United States."

That statement captures Obama's foreign policy philosophy: practical yet hopeful, open to potential but aware of the realities. In the "Obama Doctrine" the obstacles are emphasized less than the possibilities. To reach a goal, all forms of U.S. power will be deployed: diplomatic, economic, political, and military.

On The Road Again

Obama's "smart power" philosophy has been on display over the last month as he traveled to eight countries, three continents, and met with more than 90 world leaders. Along the way, he strengthened relations with governments that a few months ago were skeptical of partnering with the United States on issues of global concern.

In addition to waging two wars and confronting pressing issues like climate change and nuclear proliferation, Obama came into office charged with restoring America's somewhat damaged image and reputation abroad. There is a broad consensus in the United States that such a challenge requires a more conciliatory tone.

But at times during his travels Obama has apologized for past U.S. policies, which has infuriated the right.

The Heritage Foundation's Roberts says Obama has been branded "the apologizer in chief" by conservative thinkers. Governments don't have friends, only national interests, Roberts asserts, adding that to his critics, Obama appears to be acting like the community organizer he used to be before he entered politics, instead of the leader of the free world.

Earlier this month, Obama's belief in the wisdom of reaching out to foes led him to lift decades-old sanctions on Cuba in an effort to open the isolated communist nation to the outside world. Cuba's leader, Raul Castro, responded by offering to hold talks on anything -- from political prisoners to trade.

In Trinidad and Tobago, Obama explained his decision by saying that "the policy that we've had in place for 50 years hasn't worked the way we want it to. The Cuban people are not free. And that's our lodestone, our North Star, when it comes to our policy in Cuba."

Off The Table

Obama's candid willingness to admit that longstanding U.S. policies have failed is a cornerstone of his leadership style, says Inter-American Dialogue's Shifter.

On Venezuela, Shifter says Obama's gesture of openness may lead the outspoken Chavez to lower his anti-American rhetoric, but the hard-charging former career military officer is unlikely to make the radical changes necessary to forge a friendly relationship with the United States.

He also believes the White House was right to reach out to Cuba, but he doesn't expect that the most sensitive issues, like political prisoners and press freedom, will truly be "on the table" as Raul Castro said they would be.

"I think the administration is right to try to seize this opportunity and at least to talk, and to see where it leads," Shifter says. "I think that there are still major obstacles and the mistrust is very profound, and I think the Obama administration will probably proceed pretty cautiously and pretty gradually on this; but I do think it's moving in this direction, toward greater openness and engagement."

In the end, the smartest observers of Obama's foreign policy may be those who are reserving judgment.

After all, talking to the Castro brothers or accepting Hugo Chavez’s outstretched hand doesn’t really constitute a test of how the new White House will react in a crisis. That’s unfortunately probably yet to come.