Thank You, President Obama, for Shaking Hands with President Chavez
The whole world was watching when President Obama shook hands with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Most Americans, along with most people around the world, want the U.S. to try to get along with other countries, treat their leaders with respect, address disagreements through dialogue and negotiation, and look for areas of potential cooperation with countries with which we have disagreements on other issues.
But Republican Senator John Ensign wasn't happy.
"I think it was irresponsible for the president to be seen kind of laughing and joking with Hugo Chavez," said Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev.
Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich complained that by shaking Chavez' hand while smiling Obama had helped cause Eduardo Galeano's "Open Veins of Latin America" - the book Chavez gave Obama - to soar on best-seller lists.
The basic fact that the Right won't acknowledge is this: we just had an election a few months ago, and Americans voted for the guy who wanted to talk, not the guy who wanted to keep pounding the table. And the U.S. thaw with Venezuela has already yielded results. Venezuela is preparing to send its Ambassador back to Washington. The U.S. and Venezuela are increasing their cooperation in combating drug trafficking. And Venezuela is increasing its rhetorical pressure on FARC insurgents in Colombia to get talks moving with the Colombian government.
The right-wing hysteria about President Obama's handshake with President Chavez is kind of a brush-back pitch. The Right is worried by the widespread belief that President Obama will do what he promised. And the fact is that the American public, far from being scandalized by President Obama's diplomatic outreach, supports Obama's moves and wants him to do more. Four in five Americans supported President Obama's lifting of restrictions on the travel of Cuban-Americans to Cuba. Seventy percent of Americans think we should all be allowed to travel to Cuba. Sixty-nine percent of Americans - including 57% of Republicans - want the U.S. to re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba.
And Congress is starting to move as well: the "Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act" already has 124 co-sponsors in the House and 20 in the Senate.
The Right is worried not that President Obama's diplomatic outreach to former U.S. adversaries might fail, but that it might succeed. Because if President Obama succeeds in improving relations with former adversaries, that's going to change American politics in a way that the Right isn't going to like.
Imagine if President Obama succeeds in improving relations with Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Iran, for example, to the point where reports of cooperation between the U.S. and these countries become kind of routine. It's quite plausible. The U.S. and Iran are already cooperating in Afghanistan again. Ho-hum.
Then the Right won't be able to use the leaders of these countries as bogeys to frighten anyone.
And then political debate in the United States will focus much more on domestic economic reform. People won't get as excited about what the leaders of former adversaries are saying, because the U.S. won't be building them up as bogeys. Instead, Americans will be talking more about issues like universal health care and guaranteeing the rights of workers to organize unions, issues where Democratic positions, such as having a public health insurance option for all Americans and passing the Employee Free Choice Act are overwhelmingly popular.
President Obama noted that many Latin American leaders "talked about how Cuban doctors have dispersed throughout the region, and their countries depend on them," implying that the U.S. could be doing that too. It's a great idea. Imagine if the U.S., Venezuela and Cuba were cooperating to extend health care to poor people throughout the Americas - including the United States. It would be a very different world.