Could Obama Have Performed Better in Latin America?

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Barack Obama’s handshake with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has managed to upset more than a few observers. Of course, the negative reaction from the right has been so predictable and overblown, there’s been little room for a more reasonable critique of Obama’s performance in Latin America.

Thankfully, Eugene Robinson, writing for the Washington Post has written what I think is a generally appropriate reaction to Obama’s a bit-too-passive moment with Chavez. Robinson thinks that, while discourtesy would have been out of place, the President could have shown more displeasure with Chavez and his antics.

Obama was right to show respect for the leaders of neighboring countries big and small at the Summit of the Americas. Those who were not gracious enough to show respect for him deserved to be given — metaphorically, of course, and in the spirit of hemispheric cooperation — the back of the presidential hand.

Robinson doesn’t suggest what sort of “back of the hand” moment he’d have liked, but even a cold stare or a pithy yet undeniably negative remark from the president wouldn’t have been inappropriate. Chavez may not be the great danger some paint him as, but he is an anti-democratic force and a potentially destabilizing presence in the region. There’s no harm in Obama letting Chavez know that a kinder gentler America is still not going to cozy up to wannabe strongmen.

While I think people do read too much into the symbolism of national leaders meeting one another, I also think Obama could have reacted with more noticeable displeasure when Chavez provocatively and inappropriately gave him the “gift” of an anti-American screed. Allowing Chavez to turn a diplomatic affair into political theater wasn’t Obama’s best moment. Hopefully the president will avoid or at least counterpunch such a situation next time.

  • http://sidewaysmencken.blogspot michael reynolds

    I have a theory of Obama.

    It is that he is one of these people who sees a bright clear line from where he is to where he wants to be. All of his work-related behavior is about that line. I sometimes shorthand it as ruthlessness, but that word is too fraught.

    Venezuela is essentially irrelevant to any Obama goal. Nicaragua even less relevant. In fact, with the exception of Mexico, none of the countries at the summit has much relevance to anything on Obama’s plate. He had to go because skipping it would have been an insult, but the entire thing was probably a waste of time and effort from Obama’s point of view. It doesn’t matter how we react to Chavez because Chavez doesn’t matter: he’s background noise.

    Obama wasn’t being too nice or too compliant, I think he was dismissing Chavez and Ortega as irrelevancies. Which is what they are.

  • mike mcEachran

    The picture of Obama’s handshake and smile with Chavez says about as much about his position and policy related to Venuzuela as the family Christmas picture of me with my mouth open and eyes closed says about how much I love my mother.

  • Azhrie139

    Apparently, Alan Stewart Carl didn’t do any research for this post since the moment he describes seems to have happened if in semi-private. Look it up, I know you can be a good researcher. Or alternatively, see this evenings Daily Show.

  • Rick

    There’s another video of Obama lecturing Chavez. Ya didn’t do your research my friend.

  • kranky kritter

    Well, after shaking Chavez’s hand he managed to let slip to the media that Venezuela has one six hundredth the military force that we do.

    So if Venezuela was listening, it should be clear both to them and to us where we each stand in our relationship. For the opaque, take notice that Obama pointed out that we are big and powerful, and Venezuela is not. Everyone got that?

  • http://ShadowofDiogenes.blogs.com/shadow/ Paul

    It doesn’t weaken America just because Obama shook hands with that tyrant Hugo Chavez. If it does weaken us how strong were we to begin with? I think Obama knows how to deal with Chavez-Chavez may be in for a shock.