The handshake heard 'round the world

Conservatives are up in arms over President Obama's having acknowledged Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez.

Published April 20, 2009 2:30PM (EDT)

President Obama shook the hand of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, and conservatives aren't happy about it.

Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., for one, called Obama's greeting of Chavez "irresponsible," saying, "When you're talking about the prestige of the United States and the presidency of the United States, you have to be careful who you're seen joking around with." Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, on an anti-Obama tear of late, said the president is helping "enemies of America," and compared him to former President Jimmy Carter. ""This does look a lot like Jimmy Carter. Carter tried weakness and the world got tougher and tougher because the predators, the aggressors, the anti-Americans, the dictators, when they sense weakness, they all start pushing ahead," Gingrich said.

Obama has defended the handshake, saying the argument his critics are making, that an approach towards foreign leaders perceived as hostile is an unacceptable sign of weakness, was defeated in the last election. "The American people didn't buy it," the president said. "And there's a good reason the American people didn't buy it, because it doesn't make sense." He added, "Its defense budget is probably 1/600th of the U.S.... 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."

All true -- and it's worth noting, besides, that in the pre-George W. Bush era, there were plenty of handshakes between American presidents and leaders we find distasteful. (See, for instance, Richard Nixon and Mao.)

By Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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