Handshake…of Doom!


by Jeff Fecke | April 20, 2009 • You know, maybe it’s just me being a fuzzy-headed liburul, but I simply don’t understand the right-wing freakout over Barack Obama (gasp!) shaking Hugo Chávez’s hand! (Dun dun DUNNNNNNNN).

Jeff Fecke is a freelance writer who lives in Eagan, Minnesota.In addition to his own blog, Blog of the Moderate Left, he also contributes to Alas, a Blog, Minnesota Campaign Report, and AlterNet. Fecke has appeared as a guest on the “Today” show, the Alan Colmes radio show, and the Mark Heaney Show. Fecke is divorced, and the father of one really terrific daughter. His debut novel, The Valkyrie’s Tale, is now available.

Don’t get me wrong — Hugo Chávez is a Fidel Castro wannabe, and he’s rapidly moving from barely-democratic leader to authoritarian despot. Of course, that doesn’t distinguish him much from, say, Vladimir Putin.* And it makes him quite superior to our frienemies in China, not to mention everyone’s buddies in Saudi Arabia. (Indeed, while Chávez is autocratic and anti-liberty, I haven’t heard that Venezuela is engaged in torture; in that respect, at least, he’s a more ethical leader than George W. Bush.)

But…so what? Was Obama supposed to greet him with a roundhouse kick to the head? Should he have reached out his hand, but ostentatiously pulled it back and run it through his hair? Should he have given Chávez the stinkpalm?

Well, sure, he could have done that. If he was a bully.

America is far more powerful than any other country on Earth, and arguably more powerful than every other country on Earth combined. And we could leverage that power in each and every meeting with each and every leader we run into. We could try to manipulate the world like an eighth grade classroom, with us at the apex, our friends forming a ring around us, and the outcasts beaten and bloodied. That was the Bush fils approach to foreign policy, and it might make you feel better, just as a bully feels better when he’s on top.

But glory for a bully is transitory; eventually, the rest of the class moves on from eighth grade, into a more adult world. And the bully can either grow up, and deal with others like an adult does, or he can flail about as others work together and leave him behind.

Barack Obama dealt with Hugo Chávez like an adult. He shook his hand, was polite, listened respectfully despite disagreements, and generally behaved like we expect people older than 22 to behave. We expect customer service workers to greet angry customers politely; why would we expect less out of the leader of the free world?

Will Obama’s adult approach empower Chávez? I doubt it sincerely. And frankly, so what if it does? America has nothing to fear from Venezuela. Besides, the bully approach hasn’t worked so far — Chávez has built his power base in no small part because he was able to rally domestic constituencies against the evil of the United States. If the U.S. is a bit less overtly evil, it undermines Chávez’s raison d’être.

Ultimately, America only needs to shun other nations if it fears engaging them. But there’s not a country on the planet we really need to fear right now. A confident America doesn’t treat other nations like dirt; it treats them like equals. That doesn’t mean capitulating to their every whim — but it does mean that when another leader reaches out his or her hand, you take it.

*Not that Vladimir Putin is pulling the strings in Russia now. I mean, clearly Dmitri Medvedev is his own man. Also, I hear Siberia is balmy in mid-January.

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