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Contentions

Handshakes, Apologies, Reset Buttons and Strategic Interests

At his press conference yesterday, President Obama was asked whether he was concerned that his interaction with Hugo Chavez might add to the president’s image as being too soft on foreign policy. Obama responded that:

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. . . Even within this imaginative crowd, I think you would be hard-pressed to paint a scenario in which U.S. interests would be damaged [by a better relationship with Venezuela].

Hand me the brush.

The “polite conversation” (including the grin, the two-handed handshake, the multiple pictures, and the acceptance as a “gift” of a harshly anti-American book) follows the bowing to the King of Saudi Arabia, which followed the European apology tour, which followed the minimal response to the North Korean missile test, which followed budget cuts for missile defense, which followed the delivery of the reset button to Russia while the latter remains in Georgia, which followed the dispatch of the Secretary of State to China to downgrade human rights, which followed the apologetic interviews with Arab media marking the beginning of  Obama’s administration. Throughout this period, there has been no response to Iran’s weekly announcements of further nuclear progress other than to ask for “talks” and caution Israel against a response.

In the case of Venezuela, Chavez last month offered Russia unlimited use of a base for strategic bombers — a move that recalls a Soviet action early into the Nixon administration, when the Soviet Union took steps to build a base in Cuba suitable for servicing its nuclear submarines. The action was stopped by Nixon and Kissinger ordering naval concentrations off Cuba and sending several strong messages to the Soviets. In his memoirs, Kissinger recounts differing views in the American government about the significance of the Soviet action (and the State Department recommended “talks”), but notes that:

I saw the Soviet move as going beyond its military implications; it was a part of a process of testing under way in different parts of the world. . . . I strongly favored facing the challenge immediately lest the Soviets misunderstand our permissiveness . . . .

This time around, the State Department reaction to the Russian-Venezuelan report was a statement that it was “not much of a story” and a decline to answer whether Russian strategic bombers would “concern the United States.” For Chavez, it only added to the prestige of the presidential photo-op.

In the last three months, Obama has been painting a portrait of apology and apathy that encourages adversaries and worries allies. And a picture of weakness in the American president endangers the strategic interests of the United States.



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