An unfortunate pattern is developing in President Obama’s world travels, and is detracting from his successes. This may be simply the result of newness in international affairs, but the White House must work to correct future repetitions before a more serious episode occurs.
Obama must recognize that he can no longer behave as if he is still on the floor of the U.S. Senate, where you can put your arm around adversaries and reason with them. Some of those foreign leaders are truly dangerous. They order the assassinations of political opponents; they steal hundreds of millions of dollars of their countries’ treasuries; and they arm and harbor terrorists from neighboring countries. There is ample evidence that Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez has committed all three of the above and more. Some of the other leaders are more than suspected of such behavior. Obama should not slap foreign leaders who act like this on the back.
Each of the two times Obama has gone abroad as our envoy, he has committed a high-profile faux pas, thus erasing much of the good attained by the rest of the trip. First was the deep bow before the Saudi King at the G-20. Are there any other images from his week in Europe that stand out? But because Saudi Arabia is not a hostile state there were no repercussions other than some embarrassment and many White House explanations.
That was not the case at the recently-concluded Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago. There, what could have been a valuable two days of meetings for the United States has been blemished by a photo of a smiling Obama chatting with the most virulently anti-American leader in the hemisphere, and the most dangerous, since as opposed to the bankrupt and ancient Castro brothers, Chávez heads a wealthy and active regime.
There were many things the president did well at Trinidad. He told them that “the United States cannot be blamed for all the problems of Latin America,” as too many of those same leaders tend to do; and he said that “liberty” and the human rights of the Cuban people will be the guiding principle of his Cuba policy, something the leaders should emulate.
Moreover, at Port of Spain, Obama reversed a mistaken campaign position and ordered his staff to find a way to ratify the Free Trade Agreement with Colombia, a treaty which will boost both the U.S. economy and Colombia’s — one of the closest allies of the U.S. in the hemisphere. Obama went out of his way to dine with the leaders of Mexico, Peru, and other functioning democracies that share enemies with the U.S.: terrorism, drug trafficking, and organized crime. He deserves credit for that conduct, but that is not what the worldwide audience will remember, or even know. They will remember “the warm handshake” with Chávez.
Too many of the participants at the Summit are “freely elected” yet engaged in undermining the very institutions of a democracy and in perpetuating themselves in power indefinitely. In varying degrees, Chávez, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, Honduras’s Manuel Zelaya, and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa are abusing their presidential powers to change the rules of the game. They are all allies of Chávez in what he calls “21st-century socialism” which is what. So far, this socialism recalls nothing less that the beginning stages of the socialism which was established in the first half of the 20th century in Russia, Italy, and Germany. I doubt a U.S. president would have given a warm handshake to any of those leaders.
— Otto J. Reich served President Bush from 2001 to 2004, first as assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere and later in the National Security Council. He now heads his own international government-relations firm in Washington.