Fist Bumping with Despots

by Benjamin Domenech on 8:46 am April 21, 2009

Am I embarrassed to speak for a less than perfect democracy? Not one bit. Find me its equal. Do I suppose there are societies which are free of sin? No, I don’t. Do I think ours is, on balance, incomparably the most hopeful set of human relations the world has? Yes, I do. Have we done obscene things? Yes, we have. How did our people learn about them? They learned about them on television. In the newspapers.

- Daniel Patrick Moynihan

There have been three incidents of note in the past week apotheosizing the delicate position President Barack Obama inhabits on the international stage. The first was his Justice Department’s release of the memos detailing the CIA’s methods of torture applied to prisoners; the second, his State Department’s decision to boycott the United Nations’ World Conference against Racism; and the third — the one that has received the most attention over the weekend — his brief interactions at the Summit of the Americas with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Taken together, these events depict a young president struggling to find his course in a storm of global crises.

The release of the memos, containing the legal rationales for harsh interrogation techniques, prompted criticisms from many on both sides of the partisan aisle as mishandled, for very different reasons — the right arguing that the memos were only part of the story, and the left because, at the same time as the release, Attorney General Eric Holder announced there would be no legal action taken toward the authors of the memos or those who followed their direction. And President Obama, acknowledging the negative effect the release of these memos may have on the morale of the intelligence community, has done his best to call for moving forward, not looking backward.

But former Vice President Cheney has now publicly called on the Administration to release documents revealing the results of these interrogation techniques, particularly when it comes to Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheik Muhammed, who between them accounted for 266 incidents of waterboarding. And on the left, Democratic Rep. Richard Nadler called in an interview with the Huffington Post for the impeachment of Judge Jay Bybee, who authored the report in 2002:

Nadler dismissed Obama’s call to look forward rather than backward, arguing that the United States is obligated to investigate whether crimes were committed. “This whole call of looking forward rather than backwards — you can’t say that. The fact is, if crimes were committed, we are duty-bound under our law, we must — the United States must investigate torture if it happened in America. That’s the law. And the fact is, the law specifically says that instructions from higher officials is not an excuse. And we are obligated to investigate and, if indicated, to prosecute. The failure to at least investigate would be a violation of law,” he said.

Perhaps Rep. Nadler does not realize the vast repercussions of the precedent he would set by impeaching a sitting federal judge for legal advice offered in the service of the government, on the grounds that he willfully misread the law. Such a standard would throw the entire judiciary into a level of unprecedented chaos, and though Rep. Nadler plans to press his case with Attorney General Holder on Tuesday in Washington, he will almost certainly only receive a polite smile and an award from the Center for American Progress for his time.

On this matter, it seems clear that President Obama is attempting to adopt a position of moderation that limits recriminations for former Bush officials (some of whom are still in this administration) and that has the least impact on the ability of intelligence gatherers going forward. In truth, much of the information in the memos about interrogation methods had already been reported publicly, and — despite the overheated rhetoric from some corners of the right — it is difficult to see how this collection of legal advice will heighten the risks for American security.

And this is not the only area where the centrist path is being pursued. The decision by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to continue the United States’ policy of boycotting the United Nation’s latest in a long line of “Zionism as racism” conferences was an encouraging one. These conferences exist for the sole purpose of criticizing Israel, and for giving diplomats an opportunity to walk out in disgust from another incendiary speech from Iranian President Ahmadinejad (who did not disappoint).

It’s a symbolic move, yes, but an important one. It says that for all of the talk of the Obama Administration’s willingness to engage everyone around the world, to reset relationships and treat all nations as equals (to the significant detriment of say, Great Britain) and become merely humble members of the global community, these diplomatic pleasantries only go so far. There are some lines that still remain.

Yet it’s no accident that the last few days have all focused on the television footage of the American President, smiling and exuberant, grasping the hand of the squat, malevolent Venezuelan despot Hugo Chavez. President Obama’s insistence that this moment with Chavez was nothing more than one political leader briefly chatting with another is, in some ways, an expression of his rookie status on the world stage.

The reaction of Capitol Hill Republicans is, as one might expect, very public expressions of anger. They argue that this is proof the President seeks to follow in the wavering path of Jimmy Carter. President Obama responds by reasserting his prioritization of courtesy above all else. His explanation on Sunday:

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. I don’t think anybody can find any evidence that that would do so. Even within this imaginative crowd, I think you would be hard-pressed to paint a scenario in which U.S. interests would be damaged as a consequence of us having a more constructive relationship with Venezuela…

We had this debate throughout the campaign, and the whole notion was, is that somehow if we showed courtesy or opened up dialogue with governments that had previously been hostile to us, that that somehow would be a sign of weakness — the American people didn’t buy it. And there’s a good reason the American people didn’t buy it — because it doesn’t make sense.

President Obama’s first statement is true. But in this case, there was no offer of “constructive relationships,” nor should he anticipate one. In this situation, there’s little question that Chavez — never a talentless politician — was using Obama for his own ends, legitimizing himself once again before the world by creating an image that will grace the covers of newspapers and magazines in the days ahead.

Administration spokesmen have implicitly conceded that point, albeit reframing the moment as a mere representation of President Obama’s burgeoning popularity in Venezuela, and that Chavez needed to be seen with him at every opportunity. David Axelrod has asserted that, with a president as popular as Obama, anti-Americanism is now “not cool,” as if social rejection will discourage the nation’s enemies. And Jeffrey Davidow, a senior White House advisor, insists (without providing statistical evidence) that this event only took place because President Obama is more popular than President Chavez in Venezuela.

If true, it is hard to believe that the legendarily anti-free-speech Chavez would allow such an opinion to be legally expressed (how else to explain how the famously vain fellow was voted one of the country’s sexiest men?). As the most recent human rights report from President Obama’s own State Department on Venezuela detailed:

Politicization of the judiciary and official harassment of the political opposition and the media characterized the human rights situation during the year. The following human rights problems were reported: unlawful killings; harsh prison conditions; arbitrary arrests and detentions; a corrupt, inefficient, and politicized judicial system characterized by trial delays, impunity, and violations of due process; official intimidation and attacks on the independent media; discrimination based on political grounds; widespread corruption at all levels of government; violence against women; trafficking in persons; and restrictions on workers’ right of association.

Chavez came to what he knew would be a meaningful photo-op bearing gifts for the president he recently called “an ignoramous” — in this case, The Open Veins of Latin America, a book by Eduardo Galeano, whose predictions about the future and understandings of the past are the dusty remnants of the blame-capitalism 1970s, and say a great deal about Chavez’s own deluded view of the world. It rocketed to #2 on the Amazon bestseller list in the wake of news reports.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs has said it is unlikely President Obama will read the book, saying without any apparent sense of irony: “I think it’s in Spanish, so that might be a tad on the difficult side.” Yet should he take the time, he would find much hilarity within. As Alvaro Vargas LLosa writes:

One can picture Obama falling over with laughter as he reads the jeremiad against Third World exploitation, for it turns out that the new millennium is being dominated by the rise of poor, “dependent” nations and the increasing loss of competitiveness of wealthy nations…The author´s view that imperialism makes it impossible for countries to develop flies in the face of the prosperity of almost all of the victims of 20th century Japanese imperialism. One of them, Taiwan, has practically caught up with Japan and another, South Korea, is not far off. Not to mention the fact that Brazil, a victim of 500 years of European and American imperialism (according to the book), is now going to contribute more than $4 billion to the International Monetary Fund, the financial arm of imperialism!

The central lesson that I and others on the center-right hoped then-Senator Obama would learn before he took office — particularly in the aftermath of his insistence that he would meet in the White House with the heads of state of Iran, Syria, Cuba, Venezuela and North Korea, without preconditions — is that America’s standing in the world cannot come at the expense of our own core values and interests.

In every conversation between two sides in opposition, there comes a point where America must decide whether to do the easy thing, or the right thing — whether to sacrifice our principles for the sake of getting up from the negotiating table with a deal, to the praise of the media and the history books, or whether to be willing to walk away with nothing.

It’s one thing to acknowledge the need to bring more nations to sit down at the table with us — something that was too often put to the sidelines during the Bush years — and endeavor to sway them to our cause, communicating in a closer manner with our friends and allies. But this is the essence of alliance: working more closely with our friends, not having tea with tyrants.

There’s a lesson to be learned here from the clashes of the past. In 1962, William F. Buckley Jr. wrote and spoke against the invitation of Gus Hall, an anti-Semitic official in the American Communist Party, who had been invited to speak at the Yale campus. Buckley asked his fellow students:

What will you do when Gus Hall, the human being, comes here to defend the cause of what you know ahead of time to be the cause of organized inhumanity? Will you show that ‘shudder of polite disgust’? … Fight him, fight the tyrants everywhere; but do not ask them to your quarters, merely to spit upon them: and do not ask them to your quarters if you cannot spit upon them.

To do the one is to ambush a human being as one might a rabid dog. To do the other is to ambush oneself, to force oneself—in disregard of those who have died trying to make the point—to force oneself to break faith with humanity.

Perhaps this was not the reasoning that motivated the Obama Administration to avoid the UN’s Racism conference — there are, after all, political considerations. But it should be the reasoning they use, just as it should motivate their attitudes toward despots in North Korea, Iran, and Venezuela. If the land of the free will not be the voice for the land of the persecuted on the global stage, they will have none.


In the television footage of the meeting, a different picture emerges. As they shake hands, President Obama smiles only for a moment, before his brow furrows, and his attitude turns serious.

He gestures toward Chavez as the interpreter speaks in his controlled fashion. His posture is one of humility, much the same as the body language he adopted during his European trip. He is, in the wake of the past sins of the United States, a man on an apology tour, asking forgiveness for the villainy of the prior eight years, or longer.

We do not know what he said to Chavez, but a polite request for a “constructive relationship” seems the likeliest case. An unobjectionable request on its face, but the young president does not realize how easily he has played into Chavez’s hands.

The Venezuelan dictator is all smiles as he listens, knowing how the image will appear both in his own country and around the world. It is a minor victory, but a meaningful one to him. “I have met the imperialists,” he declares silently in this moment, “And they are mine.”

President Obama will pursue his own brand of courteous diplomacy in the coming years. He will apologize for America’s sins to America’s enemies — he will speak of moving on, of leaving the past behind, of a new beginning. But history will remember small moments like these — just as it has remembered such moments in the past, when the leaders of free nations faced those who rule in tyranny — and not, I suspect, as triumphs.


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