Thursday, April 23, 2009

Barack Obama and American strength

By Michael J.W. Stickings

I wrote on Sunday about the Obama-Chavez handshake, the one that has stirred up so much hypocritical ado on the right. One of the points I made was that it wasn't a sign of weakness on Obama's part -- a sign that Obama is somehow a friend of Chavez's tyranny, a sign that the U.S. has somehow gone soft post-Bush -- but rather a sign of strength.

Yesterday at Slate, Fred Kaplan addressed that point eloquently:

The shockwaves over the handshake might best be explained as a hangover from the long years of George W. Bush's presidency, when dealings with those who disliked us were expressly forbidden, out of a vague fear that such contact might debilitate us or legitimize them. This fear is what was "not helpful." It tended to elevate the standing of a pipsqueak like Chávez; it made him seem more ominous than he was, and it made America seem like a he-man who's frightened by a mouse. By contrast, Obama's insouciant civility, far from appearing weak, strikes a chord of sense and self-confidence.


As for less-friendly countries like Venezuela, though Obama did not say so, an unthreatening picture of America at the very least takes the wind out of Chávez, who has built power, at home and in some quarters abroad, by waving his fist at America and likening George Bush to "el diablo." And, who knows, it might maneuver Chávez more into our lane, too. "Even within this imaginative crowd," Obama said to the press corps, "I think you would be hard-pressed to paint a scenario in which U.S. interests would be damaged as a consequence of... having a more constructive relationship with Venezuela."

Agreed. In contrast to Bush and Cheney and their ilk, Obama believes in America strongly enough not to turn international relations into a simplistic battle between "us" and "them," with us hiding behind our barricades and refusing even to engage those with whom we disagree other to bombard them with self-righteous rhetoric and, literally, bombs.

With Obama in the White House, it is a new age for America and the world, much of which is looking again at America as a source of good. America is strong again, and we all better for it.

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