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.

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.

It's a matter of emphasis, and the administration's emphasis on "courtesy" – as Obama puts it – is already showing some benefits.

Vice President Biden's suggestion that Russia and the US press the "reset" button helped improve the atmosphere so that both countries could work on nuclear arms control.

Since last week's controversial handshake, Venezuela's Chávez has offered to send a new ambassador back to Washington (Venezuela expelled the US ambassador in Caracas last year; the US then followed suit).

And is Iran responding to a new US openness to talks when it hints that it may commute the sham sentencing of an American-Iranian journalist? When Jordan's King Abdullah met with Obama in the Oval Office this week, he said that many Arabs and Muslims have had "an outstanding response" to the president's outreach to Muslims.

This is early applause for an overture to a drama whose acts and scenes have yet to unfold. Will direct diplomacy with Iran inspire it to give up its nuclear ambitions? Obama is reserving tough measures in case it does not. Will negotiating with less-rigid factions of the Taliban, as Obama has hinted, end the conflict in Afghanistan more quickly?

Seemingly intractable problems such as the Middle East, North Korea, Sudan, Burma, Zimbabwe, and Russia's occupation of parts of Georgia, show the limits of American power – be it hard, soft, or in-between. Americans need to remember that other countries often hold the keys to a problem, such as China, in the case of its missile-firing neighbor.

As an opener, Obama is setting a constructive tone in foreign policy. But he must be careful not to bestow a message of legitimacy on certain leaders, nor to give Americans the impression that some countries are harmless.

Humility and strength can live together.

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