Politics

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.