Inspired perhaps by his Pulitzer Prize, Eugene Robinson pens a spot-on column on the Obama-Chavez encounter. His general affection for the president does not interfere with his observation that on this one Obama blew it — and blew it with Daniel Ortega, too. Robinson writes:
Chávez can be charming. But when Obama shook the man’s hand, he should have telegraphed clearly, through posture, expression and language, that he was not amused. Chávez’s gift of the book was meant to affront, not to enlighten, and I would have advised Obama to reciprocate in kind.
The other moment for presidential theatrics was Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s 50-minute speech excoriating, yes, the long and sordid history of U.S. meddling in Latin America. Asked later about Ortega’s peroration, Obama replied curtly that “it was 50 minutes long.”
Obama was correct not to walk out on the speech. But as was the case with Chávez’s tendentious present, Ortega’s speech was intended as a slap. When Obama spoke later, he should have prefaced his promising call for an “equal partnership” with other countries in the hemisphere with some strong pushback against those who would rather relive the insults of the past than move forward.
One needn’t agree with Robinson’s view that Chavez poses no threat to the U.S. (like candidate Obama who observed the “tiny” country of Iran, Robinson confuses mortal threat with threats to our interest and allies) to agree with his conclusion that Obama risks appearing weak with provocative thugs. It is too much to hope that Obama might have followed the example of Richard Nixon’s “kitchen debate,” but it is not too much to expect he would firmly defend his country rather than ignore Ortega’s rant or fawn over Chavez’s gift selection. Obama seems not to realize he is leading the team — the U.S. team — and not hectoring American policy from the crowd.
It is his job now not simply to avoid insults or “get along” but to advance our interests, encourage others to follow our lead, and stand up for the principles which gird our international policy. (In his first blast against Obama’s foreign policy “timidity,” Mitt Romney echoes some of these thoughts.) One doesn’t accomplish that by being a straight man in a propaganda film for every tin-pot dictator. It is a frightful shame. Because of his celebrity status, Obama has the ability to make it cool to be pro-democracy, pro-American, and anti-dictator. Instead, he is signaling it is cool to slam Uncle Sam.