Get a grip on Obama's handshake
Greeting Chávez with a smile does not mean the US is weak.
President Obama's recent grip-and-grin with Venezuelan firebrand Hugo Chávez has sparked a barrage of criticism on the Internet and in Washington. So did Mr. Obama's apparent bow before the Saudi king at the Group of 20 meeting. And then there was his admission in Europe that the US has sometimes shown "arrogance" toward its allies.Skip to next paragraph
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What's the matter with these gestures? They portray the president as an apologist and naive, and the United States as weak, say critics. They undermine the democratic and leadership values – the moral fiber – that give America its strength.
Get a grip. Those who are racing to challenge Mr. Obama's new tone – some prominent Republicans but also a few Democrats – are overreaching. The Chávez handshake does not amount to a strategic give. Besides, it is far too early to assess whether the president's soft diplomacy will turn the US into a Pillsbury dough boy.
The tonal shift is necessary to reinforce ties with allies and take a new tack with difficult or dangerous countries. Indeed, this shift was already underway during the second term of President Bush, and Mr. Bush practiced his own personal diplomacy with leaders such as Vladimir Putin.
If deferential gestures and keeping the door open to its foes fail to further US interests abroad, the world will have to admit that at least Washington tried. That could galvanize support for the US in the long run. It could, for instance, make it easier to take tougher measures against Iran.
And speaking of the long run, the strategic sands are shifting from under America. Other powers such as China are rising. The US can exert leadership, but it can't solve global problems alone or always throw its weight around. A "geotherapist" president may be exactly what's needed for a new reality in geopolitics – to an extent.
The problem with this foreign-policy debate – soft vs. tough or realism vs. moralism – is that it leaves no room for using one or the other in different circumstances, which is what's required in diplomacy, regardless of the era. The challenge lies in finding the right mix.