22 April 2009

Eugene Robinson on the Obama/Chavez Handshake

I generally like Eugene Robinson, and hats off to him for winning that Pulitzer. But yesterday's column advocating for theatrics from a traveling president leaves me dissatisfied. "Theatricality is one of the weapons in any leader's arsenal," Robinson writes, "and a well-timed glower or growl can have more impact than a sheaf of position papers."

When wingers and warmongerers chastise the president for shaking hands with Venezuela's little man, I get it. In a way, it keeps with a natural order we've come to expect in our politics. The predictable rant is that any sign of American openness is weakness. But when a voice of reason advocates a bit of superficial staging, I'm befuddled.

Eugene Robinson gets it just right when he characterizes Chavez and the essential relationship between our two countries.

Any idea that Chávez is some sort of threat to the United States is absurd. It's hard to see his fiery anti-American rhetoric as anything more than performance art, given that he has been scrupulously careful to avoid even the slightest disruption of the U.S.-Venezuela economic relationship.Venezuela owns Citgo, among other concerns, and is a reliable supplier of oil to the thirsty U.S. market.

Or, as Matt Yglesias put it yesterday:

For all the rhetorical heat generated by Chavez’s clashes with the American right, all he really wants from America is for Citgo to sell us oil and gas. And guess what? All we want from Venezuela is the ability to buy oil and gas.

So why would Robinson go on to argue that Obama should have been more rigid? Indeed, why argue that Obama should have recognized the slap Chavez intended--by presenting a tome on U.S. meddling in Latin America--and slap back? Because Robinson thinks he's speaking for moderates who like the new diplomatic worldview that Obama brings but still interpret the diplomatic landscape through the old paradigm, which, no matter how you slice it, hearkens back to the Cold War.

Guess what, folks. Chavez doesn't really intimidate the U.S. Nor should he. On the one side of the aisle, you've got a reactionary right that would seek to replay Cold War pageantry at every little opportunity. On the other side--I thought--you've got a moderate left that understands that Chavez doesn't intimidate the U.S. Why on earth should anyone, lest Eugene Robinson, see Obama's easy way in a crowded room as a faux pas?

Public perception is, largely, what the media molds of it. And if media outlets like the Washington Post and Pulitzer prize winners like Eugene Robinson were to deem Obama's stature in Trinidad as, say, a sign of imperturbable confidence, then that's what a majority of Americans would reliably repeat for the duration of a given spin cycle. Where are the commentators to remind us that America can afford to be big, that our chief diplomat can go ahead and indulge in some hand shaking and shoulder slapping and can accept a gift for the recycle bin without reeling like we've all got an insecurity complex? It could read "Obama didn't give Chavez a thing, not a single hint as to U.S. disposition toward Venezuela. The president smiled, enjoyed some token banter, and moved on."

I don't expect Newt Gingrich or Dick Cheney to play any other role than to make the hackneyed call for strength and force that plays well to the wide right and gets our country into trouble time and again. But I do expect, and desperately hope, that saner voices will also choose milder interpretations when the president makes non-news on the diplomatic front.