In one photo, President Obama is grinning as he clasps Hugo Chavez by the hand. In another, he grasps Chavez warmly by the shoulder. Those pictures disgusted several members of Congress. Some said so on national television.
Responding to criticism of this encounter, the president was by turns cavalier and obtuse. About the left-wing rant of a book Chavez gave him, Obama said mildly, "It was a nice gesture to give me a book. I'm a reader." Regarding the smiling greeting to an oil-rich, America hating, opposition silencing, drug smuggling Castro acolyte, Obama asserted, "We had this debate throughout the campaign. This whole notion that somehow if we showed courtesy or opened up dialogue with governments previously hostile that we were soft. Only the American people didn't buy it. And there's a good reason the American people didn't buy it. Because it didn't make sense."
Isn't it the case that some leaders, by their dangerous and destructive actions, forfeit the right to warm greetings? Is there anyone Obama would decline to exchange friendly greetings with at a diplomatic encounter? How about Robert Mugabe? Kim Jong Il? Chavez's close friend Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? If Barack Obama had been president in 1977, would he have shaken Pol Pot's hand? Chavez is not Pol Pot, of course. Nor even as evil as Ahmadinejad. Yet. But despite his sometimes clownish behavior, Chavez is more Mussolini than Charlie Chaplin.
Obama further justified his "courtesy" toward Chavez by observing that Venezuela's "defense budget is probably 1/600th of the U.S. They own Citgo. 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."
This is proving to be one of Obama's favorite straw men (and he has so many!). He said something very similar about Iran during the campaign. But no one is suggesting that shaking hands with Chavez endangers national security. And no sensible person believes that it is only through building militaries to rival our own that nations can be threatening to their neighbors, to us and to the world.